Monday, October 3, 2011

New Book (Ordered): Jeff Jarvis: Are we Too Hung Up on Privacy

Jeff Jarvis: 'We now take it for granted that any piece of information we want is likely a search away.'


For many years, privacy has been evolving to become a right as fundamental as equal protection or free speech. But what if it comes at too high a cost? What if we have too much privacy when technology now makes sharing information so much easier and the value of shared information so much greater?

This is the thesis of a new book, "Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live," by Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York. In contrast to privacy activists, he argues for "publicness" to make the most of modern technologies.

"Just as we now take it for granted that any piece of information we want is likely a search away," Mr. Jarvis writes, "we are coming to rely on the idea that the people we want to meet are a connection away."

The benefits of social media are leading people increasingly to be more public. Most Americans over the age of 12 now have accounts on Facebook, whose entire purpose is to connect and share personal information. "To join up with fellow diabetics or vegetarians or libertarians or Star Trek fans, we first have to reveal ourselves as members of those groups," Mr. Jarvis writes.

Mr. Jarvis details privacy fears over time arising from new technologies, from the printing press to the telephone to the microphone. A century ago, Kodak cameras made it easy for the first time to take and share photos of people; Teddy Roosevelt for a time banned cameras from parks in Washington as a privacy violation.

Mr. Jarvis is his own test case for the benefits of sharing information. A hyperactive blogger and Twitter poster, he is famous among the social media set for his frank postings about his prostate cancer and the occasional embarrassing side effects of the treatment. He says in return for being so public, he got advice from men who had undergone the same procedure and the satisfaction of urging others to seek treatment. He once complained so bitterly online about problems with his computer that he created what became known online as "Dell hell."

The more than 80,000 people who follow Mr. Jarvis on Twitter know his views on many topics. These are often cranky. He credits WikiLeaks as journalism, thinks advertising revenue will somehow again be enough to fund news reporting, and last Friday reported he had visited Occupy Wall Street demonstrators (Twitter post: "Glad to see they were eating well & a generator powering many Macs") and made a donation. Those of us who disagree with these views appreciate much of the rest of his posts, including his links to interesting articles and events.

Mr. Jarvis is not starry-eyed about the Web. "Some people turn trollish, just announcing that they don't like what I'm saying, adding nothing to the discussion but venom," he told me last week. "They sometimes accuse me of oversharing. Well, I say they're over-listening. If they don't like what I say and don't choose to enter a discussion, they shouldn't follow me—and they shouldn't try to tell me what not to say."

Mr. Jarvis argues it should be up to each person where to balance the risks and rewards of being more public. "When new technologies cause change and fear, government's reflex is to regulate them to protect the past," he says. "But in doing so, they also can cut off the opportunities for the future."

Congress is considering several privacy bills. But Mr. Jarvis calls it a "dire mistake to regulate and limit this new technology before we even know what it can do."
Privacy is notoriously difficult to define legally. Mr. Jarvis says we should think about privacy as a matter of ethics instead. We should respect what others intend to keep private, but publicness reflects the choices "made by the creator of one's own information." The balance between privacy and publicness will differ from person to person in ways that laws applying to all can't capture.

"Perhaps this will lead to what I call the doctrine of mutually assured humiliation," Mr. Jarvis says. "I won't make fun of your silly picture if you don't make fun of mine. Perhaps it will lead to a greater expectation of openness from corporations and transparency from government. Perhaps it will also lead to people being more connected, for they can no longer run away from each other as they'll always be only a link or two apart."

No one could have known when the printing press was invented that it would enable people to share and test new ideas, from democracy to the scientific method. Some day we'll know whether digital technologies have such a profound impact, but we are already altering our behavior to take advantage of what they offer. Yesterday's expectation of privacy is rapidly giving way to something new, and perhaps better.

--------------------------------------------------Stefaan G. Verhulst
Chief of Research
Markle Foundation
10 Rockefeller Plaza, Floor 16
New York, NY 10020-1903

 Tel. 212 713 7630
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