A little corner of the Empire on the web.

12 February, 2007

Youth, Privacy and the Modern World

Okay, I'm not even 30 yet and things have conspired to make me feel old. I thought I was in touch, a real geek and a full part of the internet generation. It turns out that I may be some of that, but I still have one foot in the old world.

I read somewhere recently where a member of the 'older generation' was talking to a 'youngster' about calendars, and the youngster couldn't understand the concept behind having an Outlook calendar saved on your PC:

Why would you want a calendar that no one else can access?

Now, I've had an electronic calendar for about ten years now. Spread across work computers (using Lotus Organizer and then Microsoft Outlook), various models of Palm handheld, two different Blackberrys (what is the plural of Blackberry?), home PCs (Palm Desktop) and online (Google Calendars and Outlook Web Access). Most of these have synchronized back and forwards with each other in various ways creating a long history. Outlook is storing it's calendar on the Exchange server and publishing my free/busy info to the rest of the company, but not the actual appointments. The Google Calendars are shareable, but not shared.

I should be right there with this, but despite my techno-geekery, I am still stuck in the dark ages of having your own calendar that is yours, and yours alone.

Apparently I'm not alone in this, and one of the symptoms is that I don't regularly bare my soul (and other things) on LiveJournal or YouTube. I have two blogs (and have been nearly writing my own blog software for years now, but as you may have noticed, there is very little personal sharing here. I don't have a MySpace page, in fact as far as I can tell its just the new GeoCities (all lurid colours, randomly placed animated pictures and scrolling text). I have a love/hate relationship with my mobile phone (But I don't always want to be contactable!).

I'm very aware of privacy and how 'big brother' is tracking me, I make conscious trade-offs between my privacy and convenience/cash. I don't have any store-cards, but I do have credit cards and an Oyster travel card. I realise that I work in the City that has more cameras per square meter than anywhere else in the world, and I'm sure they have caught an awful lot of pictures of me doing very silly things. I've never had a full-face picture of me as my MSN Messenger picture, yet I've published web pages with multiple pictures of me drunk at parties.

I do have friends that I only know online and I've never met, but they are by far outnumbered by the people I only know in real-life and wouldn't have a clue how to contact them online in any way other than email (generally just a work address).

I used to post to Usenet with my full name, location, web page, email and (later) ICQ IM address. Later on my web page I listed most of the above and had contact links on every page. These days I rarely post to Usenet (although many of my old posts are accessible via Google Groups if you know what you're looking for), I post to forums and blog comments semi-anonymously and although my web page may have my full name, it has pretty much no contact details and the CGI contact form has been disabled after it just became an easy way for spammers to send to me.

I'm cutting off much of my public online presence just as so many are sharing more and more of themselves.

This sums it all up perfectly:

There is another way to look at this shift. Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

So it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn't exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones. For someone like me, who grew up sealing my diary with a literal lock, this may be tough to accept. But under current circumstances, a defiant belief in holding things close to your chest might not be high-minded. It might be an artifact -- quaint and naive, like a determined faith that virginity keeps ladies pure. Or at least that might be true for someone who has grown up ":putting themselves out there": and found that the benefits of being transparent make the risks worth it. [...]

For anyone over 30, this may be pretty hard to take. Perhaps you smell brimstone in the air, the sense of a devil's bargain: Is this what happens when we are all, eternally, onstage? It's not as if those fifties squares griping about Elvis were wrong, after all. As Clay Shirky points out, ":All that stuff the elders said about rock and roll? They pretty much nailed it. Miscegenation, teenagers running wild, the end of marriage!": [...]

Right now the big question for anyone of my generation seems to be, endlessly, "Why would anyone do that?" This is not a meaningful question for a 16-year-old. The benefits are obvious: The public life is fun. It’s creative. It’s where their friends are. It’s theater, but it’s also community: In this linked, logged world, you have a place to think out loud and be listened to, to meet strangers and go deeper with friends. And, yes, there are all sorts of crappy side effects: the passive-aggressive drama ("you know who you are!"), the shaming outbursts, the chill a person can feel in cyberspace on a particularly bad day. There are lousy side effects of most social changes (see feminism, democracy, the creation of the interstate highway system).

From: Kids, the Internet, and the End of Privacy: The Greatest Generation Gap Since Rock and Roll -- New York Magazine. Via JWZ.

But maybe the problem is that at heart I'm just a bit too schizophrenic about this, I really have got one foot in each camp. I just feel like at times I'm both people in XKCD's "Dreams":

Dreams by XKCD