My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Online/Offline is a false dichotomy

Two months ago I read The Numerati, in which Stephen Baker discusses how technology--particularly the Internet--is affecting marketing techniques and how businesses and individuals manage their data. Now that we have the tools and understanding to mathematically model more behaviour than ever before, there's a new group of people--the eponymous Numerati--at the forefront of this information revolution.

One of the concerns Baker briefly addresses is privacy. On the Internet, this has always been an issue, but the surge in popularity of social networking this year makes it even more relevant. MySpace and Facebook have made headlines with the Lori Drew case and the launch of identity management Facebook Connect.((Google Friend Connect gets no respect. Poor OpenSocial!)) What was once a matter of "privacy" is now a question of the most appropriate mechanism for managing the convergence of one's offline and online personae.

And I can't help but feel that some people are missing the point.

What is Privacy?

Like "Web 2.0", we tend to throw the term "privacy" around quite a bit without much thought to what we actually want when we demand it. Does this merely mean we want our bank account details safe? Or do we actually want a guarantee of anonymity (if we choose it)? Is our personal data only private if we keep it secret, or is it still private if we share it with other people (such as friends or corporations) as long as it isn't available to the general public?

Let's face it though: in the evanescent medium of the Internet, any strict definitions regularly become obsolete. So instead, let's define privacy as a mode of operation rather than a state of being. Online, privacy is more an ability of a user to control how his or her personal data is distributed. Privacy settings on web sites are an excellent example of this mode of operation: the web site gives the user the choice of what to reveal.

But We Just Wanna Have Fun

Then apparently you haven't heard the news: the Internets are serious businesses. This is hard for many people to accept--it's so easy to go online, create a fake identity, and begin fooling around. Yet at its core, the Internet is not a fictitious world or some sort of MMORPG. While you can often assume the cloak of anonymity,((First seen in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Proxies)) increasingly services expect you to dole out personal details and geographical information.

I can understand why this has privacy advocates concerned. It won't be long, they argue, before everyone is chipped with evil, insecure RFID devices that allow the Google Overlords to track our every movement and even read our minds, right? After all, as soon as we tell a service on the Internet not only who we are, but where we live, it's only a matter of time before an axe murderer shows up at our door, right?

It's good to be wary and vigilant of flagrant violations of one's privacy. However, these sort of overreactions are indicative, in my opinion, of a misunderstanding of the Internet as a communication medium. In that sense, the Internet really is something new. We've never had a communication medium quite like it. The Internet's effect on society is tantamount to that of the printing press on fifteenth century European society--but it is also so much more. The Internet is both a library and a conference centre. When people pull out their mobile phones and say, "This is my office," they aren't necessarily joking.

The true potential of the Internet will never be realized unless we accept that geostamping is as much of a necessity as timestamping. Since the inception of the Internet, content creators regularly date the work they publish online--yet only recently have we begun tagging that work with geographical information. Now websites like Flickr can automatically geostamp your photos using the information embedded into the uploaded photograph. While watchdogs call that a privacy violation, I call that awesome. (And you can turn it off if you don't like it.)

Knowledge Is Slavery

The counterargument to handing all our data over to the Google Overlords is to trot out George Orwell's 1984 and staple the adjective "Orwellian" to everything. Now, I admit I often worry about that. Giving Google my personal information is one of my favourite pastimes, but is it a dangerous pastime? Is Google going to start editing the Internet to retcon reality?

The short answer is: no. The explanation to the short answer is: you won't let them--at least, I hope.

See, the thing about 1984 is that Orwell wasn't cautioning us against "Big Brother" type dystopian societies--most of us were already against those at the time. He was cautioning us that those sort of societies spring up because we don't do anything about it. That message is kind of hitting home after recent events in Canada ... but anyway, I digress.

My point is that there's still plenty of room on the Internet for individuals and countercultures to survive. That's the beauty of the Internet: as long as you have the technology, you can rebuild it, recreate it, and make it better than it was before. You only run into problems when you have a government, like China, that begins dictating what you can or can't do when you browse the Internet and enforce it technologically. I don't know if you've noticed, however, but that was not an isolated incident in China--that sort of government restriction was present in every part of the lives of Chinese citizens. Similarly, if we see the inception of an "Orwellian Internet", it will happpen because we the people have sold out.

In short, Orwellian society begets Orwellian Internet, not the other way around. Orwellian. Orwellian. Orwellian.

Great adjective.

Wait, You're Still Reading This?

I would recommend The Numerati to everyone, not just people with an interest in this field. The book is very short and doesn't go into the mathematical specifics behind this statistical analysis--Baker's a business writer, not a math geek like me--so it's quite understandable to laypeople. In his conclusion, Baker says:

So we're going to have to reevaluate our ideas about privacy and secrets ... until recently, our secrets were scattered.... Most of them, if we played it right, didn't mingle much. Unless a detective was on the case, the bits of information didn't find each other. Now they can and they will.

This can be scary. No doubt it will tempt a few of us to turn away from the data-spewing world altogether. Some will tiptoe around the Internet, if they venture there at all....

But with a bit of knowledge, we can turn these tools to our advantage. You may not have noticed, but as we make our way in these pages from the snooping workplace to the laboratories of love, we gradually evolve from data serfs into data masters.... We're appealing to the science of the Numerati to protect us from falls and alert us before strokes and heart attacks.... The point is, these statistical tools are going to be quietly assuming more and more power in our lives. We might as well learn how to grab the controls and use them for [our] own interests. (204-5)

Before that, Baker makes another statement that pretty much sums up my entire view toward privacy: "The personal data can be shared but not the identity" (204). How many of you have done anonymous surveys, or checked off a box that says, "Yes, you can share my data as long as you don't associate with my identity"? For those of you that haven't--are you sure? How many of you honestly read through those tiresome EULAs that accompany any of the software you install--many of those include clauses that permit the software to anonymously report data about how you use the software.

As Baker explains, this sort of data is neither good nor bad. What matters is who uses it and how they use it. Unless you become a hermit((Which I'm still considering, by the way.)), achieving total privacy is impractical. So rather than run from the Google overlords, these Numerati, learn about them. Learn what they do with your data, and be vigilant in how you manage your online identity.

There are risks associated with any venture, and the Internet is no different in this case. Every time you connect your computer to it, you take the risk that you'll inadvertently download a virus or be deluged with spam. But like many risky ventures, I think the Internet is worth that risk.

The debate over privacy should not be about how to keep your secrets--well, secret. That is a lost cause. Instead, the debate should be over how best to manage those secrets, and how to make sure our personal data is used to benefit us rather than exploit us.