Friday, October 1, 2010

Privacy in a Digital World

One of the concerns that I see coming up often in discussions of the ways that the digital revolution is changing the world, is how our privacy as individuals is being affected. With digital convenience comes increased interconnectivity. Through a digital signal people are closer than they've ever been before, regardless of the physical distance between them. And though digital storage can be fragile, it is becoming cheaper and smaller, and much more convenient to store all kinds of information for extended periods, as well as to share and transfer that information across the globe. And while there is such a thing as digital security, not everybody knows as much about it as they should, and like with all things, there are back doors.

In a different age, before computers, before telephones, before recording technology existed, one could imagine that people could have a great deal of privacy, if they wanted it. They could engage in activities in secret, and the only record would be the imperfect memories of those directly involved.

But what is the value of privacy? There is an intrinsic value, which is related to the desire to be alone, to remain unjudged, and to simply be, free from the observation of others. Some people are more comfortable doing some things on their own. I think this should be respected. It's when people feel a need for privacy, when they might like to share but refrain in the interest of self-protection, that I am concerned. Ideally, nobody should feel compelled to shut up if they'd rather speak out (isn't this the principle behind free speech protection?).

A question arises regarding the judgment of others. Firstly, do we deserve to be judged by others? Do others have the right to judge us, and to adopt patterns of behavior towards us based on that judgment? Of the things that a person might want to keep secret from others, there are criminal acts, and there are unpopular acts. You might argue that criminal acts don't deserve privacy, but what if a homosexual wants to keep his sexual orientation a secret in order to avoid social and moral condemnation in a society that does not criminalize, but still discriminates against homosexuality? I think that's a valid justification for privacy. But what if it were possible for us all to mature, and stop judging people based on these kinds of factors?

I think that what the digital erosion of privacy is doing is bringing to light many private behaviors that have been going on for a good long while, but were simply less known, or less talked about, in days of broader privacy. And I think that this could be a good thing. If we could replace the attitude of "whatever you wanna do behind closed doors, as long as I don't have to hear about it, I don't care" with "I see, people do these things, and there's nothing wrong with it", then I think a lot more people could be a lot more honest with themselves, and with others, and that would promote good self-esteem and better, more honest relations between people.

Naturally, before we progress from one attitude to the other, there will be an exposure phase, in which people will overreact to behaviors they are not used to. This is a dangerous phase, where many people stand to be prosecuted for things they really shouldn't be prosecuted for, like the discrimination against homosexuality for example. But if in the long run it means that we, as a group, as a species, can come to terms with a wider range of what it means to be human, I think this will be a good thing. I just think that in the meantime, we should be careful not to attack people for things that offend us, that disagree with our moral codes, or our sense of values and decorum. I realize this is asking a lot, but it's important for our humanity.

And this isn't to say that we should begin to accept anything and everything that someone could do, just that we should redefine our eroded principle of harm, and learn which sort of things truly are worthy of restriction and punishment, and which aren't. As an example, I have heard about an event in San Francisco that sometimes involves explicit displays of sexuality in public streets (even if it's not officially sanctioned), and a reporter, responding to this, made the all-too-easy comparison to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. If some people like to fornicate in the streets, I don't see how that's evidence of the corruption of society. Now, if people were being raped in the streets, that's clearly a different matter. But otherwise, this is a "moral" offense, and should not be a criminal one.

And ultimately, you might not want to see that happening in your streets (that's probably something your community should decide), but the fact that it happens somewhere (the revelation of which is being facilitated by digital transparency) isn't a good reason for you to get on your high horse and start judging others. Live, and let live.

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