The end of privacy

Of course, the famous quote from Scott McNealy, chairman and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, “you have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”, has mostly been repeated out of context. But it created quite a stir at the time, almost a decade ago. Since then the situation regarding privacy has increasingly changed in a direction that most would describe as worse. I am not sure I would – although it certainly is not an easy subject and I hope not to simplify it too much in this blog.

But in short, I guess I am advocating the end of privacy.

There was an interesting book that got me thinking on the subject, written by two of my favourite science fiction writers, Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter: The Light of Other Days .

Good science fiction for me means taking one or more scientific theories, and extrapolating those theories in a scientific way in one or more areas like sociology, psychology, technology, economy or whatever. This is what books like Frank Herbert’s Dune did (ecology and psychology), or Isaac Asimov’s Robot series (robotics of course, extrapolated in sociology and politics).

The story is built on an invention that would make space transparent. That is, a relatively cheap and easy to manufacture gadget would enable people to look everywhere.

This invention made an end to privacy, definitely. The nice thing about the idea in this book is that it was an invention that did not give room to fiddling with the technology to “protect” the privileged: everybody, even the most powerful, was subject to unseen observation. This is my only misgiving on the present trend towards less and less privacy: people with enough resources are still able to maintain high levels of privacy, and this of course would not only include presidents and queens, but criminals as well.

With the caveat of “no privacy – no exemptions” I find more and more that I am not uncomfortable with the idea of the end of privacy, even becoming enthusiastic about it.

When I moved 23 years ago from living in a city in the centre of The Netherlands to a small village completely on the outskirts of the country, I had to endure a culture shock. I lived in my new house only for a few weeks when, taking a stroll trough the village, I was greeted by a complete stranger with “Goedemiddag, meneer Vens!” (Good afternoon, mister Vens). I can tell you I was genuinely shocked. I had to fight with a terrible feeling of being locked up during many months, of being the subject of constant surveillance in every move I made.

Over the years my initial fright and resistance have changed into the opposite: the care of the village community, the safety it provides, and the social cohesion is something I have learned to value. People have no inborn need of privacy, and I am convinced the problem arose relatively recent, during the rise of the first city states, where communities of people started to coagulate together of more than 3000 souls.

I have talked a lot about the magical number of 3000, and I will probably explain more on in other articles, but one result of this was that suddenly something became possible that was unthinkable earlier: anonymity. One could undertake actions of a shady nature without a too large risk of being recognised later as the perpetrator.

There was no privacy in the stone age.

There will be no privacy in the coming age.

Another aspect of this change, which is going relatively gradually in our society compared to the book, but which is covered in the book in a (I think) realistic way, is the impact it will have on our society. We can already recognise that the invention of the modern computer is transforming society. But, as Marshall McLuhan observed : “I do not know who discovered water, but I am sure it was not a fish!”, we are in the middle of it and therefore in the worst position to be able to really comprehend the extent of this change.


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