On privacy, and why you’re better off without it

body laptop interface

They know your name. They know what you do. They know where you live, where you work, where you get coffee every morning, who your parents are, who your friends are, and what kind of pets you have. 

But who are they? Google? Yes. The government? Yes. Your next door neighbor? Yes. Me? Yes. This is either far, far worse than anyone’s dystopian vision of the future – or we’re starting to recreate a kind of society, on a planetary scale, that we’d all assumed we’d lost when we invented the first city. No one took this information from you. We have it because you gave it to us.

Humans evolved in tribes. Everyone knew everyone. We knew where they were, what they were doing, who they were doing it with. It was a fantastically successful survival strategy that allowed us to cooperate and advance beyond any other species in our planet’s history.

The industrial age has pushed the social human – so adept at working with other humans – into the mold of a solitary animal. We’ve competed against each other for every resource on the planet until, now, we find ourselves in a place where the only way to make sure we all have enough to live, is by moving back into a system of collaboration. If we don’t share, we’re doomed.

Does this sharing have to involve all the personal details of our lives? All the kinds of things that our tribe members would have known about us? Yes. We’re biologically programmed to care about the other humans in our own tribe. We define who is in that tribe by how well we know them. Where do they live? What kinds of things do they like? How am I connected to them? When we know these details, we can empathize with them, even when they’re different from our own. It’s when other humans are an ambiguity that we stop caring.

The fact is, this isn’t some dystopian future where a single entity has the dirt on all of us and uses it to control us. We all have the dirt on all of us. It’s a shift in human culture – but I don’t believe that it’s a bad one. We’re creating a world where every human is someone we’re connected to. And we’re all doing it together, with every connection we make and every piece of information we share.

If you think I sound hopelessly idealistic, you’re probably right, but think about the alternative. In the 20th century, we had more privacy than ever. Even when working in groups we separated ourselves, in private offices, cubicles, apartments, cars – from our coworkers, our friends, our families and the world. We created new, efficient ways of killing people we didn’t know and destroying an environment we no longer thought we had to live in.

Our communication is finally catching up. The overwhelming response to the election protests in Iran this year was a small proof that communication equals empathy. Those people weren’t just faces on the news. They were individuals, with their own thoughts, that we could see, respond to and share. The more we know about each other, the more human we become to each other – and the better we’ll all be able to work together to tackle the problems that our civilizations have created.

I’m happy to give up privacy for that.

Privacy is lonely.


Inspired by things I read here, here, and most importantly here.

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  1. zach wilson
    Posted December 8, 2009 at 16:25 | Permalink

    pretty great

  2. Richard
    Posted January 23, 2011 at 01:46 | Permalink

    That orange woolly thing reminds me of the end of the movie ‘Society’ *shudder*

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