Digital Privacy: Techno-Conservatism, or a Matter of Freedom?

Brilliant weekend away over the Bank Holiday, with loads of surfing, go-karting and some great evening conversations with a bright and challenging bunch of friends.

One of the most interesting areas we talked about was around privacy in future technologies, and, when I outlined my major concerns about Google Glass-type devices I was quite surprised to be called a conservative on the issue.

This morning someone from the weekend sent me this article on the BBC about some users’ responses to using Glass, which makes very interesting reading. (For a more extensive look at the issues, this ‘35 Arguments Against Google Glass‘ is very well worth a read.)

One of the comments that jumped out from the BBC article was this:

It makes CCTV cameras look trivial. Here is a real-time, always-on, internet-connected data stream being fed in – not from a fixed position on a building, but from among our everyday lives. The person next to you isn’t just another commuter any more, they’re a Google agent…

Choice is key to trust in the digital economy and Glass doesn’t just challenge our assumptions about consent, it challenges whether we even have a choice any more. And that can’t be good for anyone.

I think this is the key word: choice. A good friend over the weekend said that she wasn’t really concerned about Glass etc., as ‘it’s just the future – it will just happen, and you just have to choose if you want to join in or not.’ I see that, but this is the problem with Glass and other aspects of the digital future, we may not have any choice. When someone looks at you on the train, the question will be ‘are they taking a creep-shot of me?‘ This cannot be good.

A connected issue came up this morning too: designer Wilf Whitty shared a release from Adobe, announcing their plans to move their design applications into a ‘creative cloud.’

We believe that Creative Cloud will have a larger impact on the creative world than anything else we’ve done over the past three decades. It is our single highest priority to enable deep integration between our tools and services. One of the implications of this is that many of the new features in our CC applications require access to Creative Cloud, as will many of the updates we are planning for the future.

As Wilf said in a reply to them: ‘I already work when and where I want (laptop), have a creative community (studio) and don’t need to subscribe to Creative Cloud.’

But the quote in the Adobe release above begs the question, will designers even have a choice in the future? And what privacy questions will the cloud-basing of all these applications and files raise?

There are an infinite number of possible futures out there, and it is entirely up to each one of us to make the best choices each of us have to navigate towards the best possible future. As with the announcement of the world’s first 3D-printed gun being fired today (and the coming free release by right-wing groups of blue-prints to build your own) it is clear that not everything that is possible is desirable – in other words, we have to make choices. But when the choices of others remove choices from our own hands, that becomes a matter not just of their freedom to act, but of their actions limiting other people’s freedom.

In Mutiny I outlined how pirates were pursuing a radical self-determination, and doing so by living ‘off the radar’ in TAZ-style communities. Our ability to choose to enter or absent ourselves from the new digital cartography is narrowing, and is going to require a) legislation, b) direct action and c) education. That all of these are currently struggling in the face of economic and big-business pressures (and direct action being severely bashed by legislation created by governments who love snooping anyway) leaves me feeling a little concerned about the future people are choosing for us.



5 responses to “Digital Privacy: Techno-Conservatism, or a Matter of Freedom?”

  1. Narcissus

    There is always a choice. Right now, some live like the pirates you so well describe. Off the grid, away from blogs and smartphones. Without fanfare and usually with ridicule. I sense many (most) simply do not want that lifestyle and the challenges it presents. Who will tweet about us if they can’t see us? So the “system” (the aggregated sum of all our choices) chooses so that we can still say, rather slyly, we wanted something else.

    When Kierkegaard choose to go after the Corsair, he knew what life that would bring. As did the choice to not marry Regina. As did the choice to write in Danish. I suspect we shall have to do likewise me hearties. Or we can just blog about it on our new google glass as if we were really peeved.


  2. @Marcokie

    Neal Stephenson imagined a future where google glass like devices are common in his book Snowcrash (written in 1992 amazingly!)

    The contradiction is that with so many data feeds that’s not really searchable everything recorded becomes invisible.

  3. I think you’re right about choice remaining – my concern is the level of ridicule. To live without a smartphone, without Facebook etc is possible without much ridicule, but I can foresee a world where to live outside of the dominant digital cartography will bring huge ridicule, and a level of alienation that might make ‘normal’ labour impossible. That seems an undesirable place to me: when ‘normal’ becomes laughable and difficult to sustain.
    Will have to look up Snowcrash!

  4. Narcissus

    It seems an undesirable place to me as well. Though a part of me wonders if the voice I hear is in fact the 1st century converts shouting over the port side – Welcome to the party! What took you so long?

  5. I’m often reminded of Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”