From living in public to losing in private

– by Geoff Olson –

Software license agreements – who reads ‘em anymore? These days, it seems almost perversely old-school to not immediately click “I accept”. On the rare occasions I scroll through these tracts of legalese, I often find the app maker wants approval to get into my contacts, my photos, and the very guts of my phone/tablet/computer. In such cases, I delete the app.

Our Pavlovian willingness to click away our personal privacy comes bundled with our habit of oversharing on social media. And that brings me to a prophetic social experiment that took place two decades ago.

In late 1999, over 100 people agreed to spend 30 days in an underground bunker in the heart of New York City. Each had their own assigned pod, modelled after Japanese-style capsule hotels. The pods were equipped with surveillance cameras and a personal channel in a closed circuit network. Everyone could see everyone else engaging in intimate acts and exchanges. The adventurers even partook in interrogations to reveal the most intimate details of their lives. In this hellish party environment, personal privacy utterly collapsed. Many began to fall apart.

Thinking it was a cult, FEMA police raided the bunker on Jan 1, 2000. On the morning of the new millennium, the participants were set loose into the streets of Manhattan.

This social experiment, captured in the unsettling 2009 film We Live in Public, was the brainchild of the eccentric Internet pioneer Josh Harris. He constructed his digital petri dish to investigate how social identity would be constructed in the future. Harris believed we would start using computer technology to publicize our lives and invent virtual selves – while abandoning personal privacy in the process.
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East is East part one
East is East part two

Harris’s experiment was a harbinger of the reality TV craze of the early naughts, which gave us shows like Big Brother, Survivor, and that incubator for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, The Apprentice. But the experiment also anticipated today’s open-air bunker of networked devices, through which every conceivable dimension of our lives is measured, mapped, tracked and sold.

In 2003, a young Harvard student named Mark Zuckerberg invented “Facemash”, a website for rating the attractiveness of female Ivy League students. Initially, the young Zuckerberg faced expulsion, and was charged with breaching security and violating both copyrights and individual privacy. The charges were dropped. Yet with startup investors, Zuckerberg leveraged his bad habits into a new social networking platform. In short order, millions of people across the world freely handed over their personal information to Facebook for the opportunity to connect with real and ersatz “friends”. The company’s revenue model depended on selling off the harvested metadata to all manner of third parties, and claiming copyright on anything members wrote on Facebook.

Yet “surveillance capitalism” is no longer just limited to smart phones and social media. As of January 2019, there were reportedly nearly 120 million smart speakers in U.S. homes, and increasing numbers of consumers signing up for 24-7 domestic penetration by Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple.

Ten years ago, if you asked any adult how they’d feel about installing corporate listening devices into their homes, you’d probably hear the alarmed response, “Orwell!” Yet within the space of a decade you’re more likely to hear, “Oh, well…”

To give just one example, I know an intelligent educated couple who paid up for Google Assistant. When I visit their home I make a point of asking, “mind disabling your spy device?” They amicably comply, but on a recent visit they refused. Their Google Assistant, an innocent-looking donut-sized device, was being used to time something in the oven. Um, don’t ovens come with timers? I kept mum.

My friends, like so many others, are trading personal privacy for immediate comfort and convenience. But that’s how a slippery slope becomes a slalom course. Often the rationalization comes down to “we have nothing to hide”, but isn’t that welcoming a world in which external parties get to redefine what’s safe to share? (Several years ago, Samsung attached a notification to their smart TVs telling buyers to mind their conversations in the presence of their plugged-in purchases.)

But like everyone else, I find our magic rectangles, big and small, damnably seductive. There is amazingly diverse and creative high-end content on Netflix and other portals and platforms. And yes, social media has its place. Even if, as one writer put it, it has devolved into a “microcelebrity farm tilled by our free labour,” and irrigated by online pissing matches.

The jury is still out on the long-term psychological effects of digital media, but a number of studies indicate the increased levels of anxiety among the young, and dropping indices for empathy, can be sourced in part to over-reliance on devices. Another study suggests it’s not so much the content of social media that is psychologically problematic; rather, it’s the amount of time it robs from real-world interactions with others.

“What does it mean to be trusted in a transparent world?” asks author Laurence Scott in a recent article for The New York Times. With the proliferation of surveillance technologies, we exchange person-to-person trust for professionalized tracking. Scott gives the example of a dog-walking firm that allows customers to track their pets’ walkers in real time. “The proliferation of digital surveillance software is making the elimination of unmonitored, unaccountable moments an expected part of a business’s service. Without private spaces, where life occurs beyond our vision or knowledge, there is no need for trust. In an open-plan world, trustworthiness isn’t so much a moral quality as a condition of not having to be trusted at all,” he observes.

As our private spaces transform, so do our public spheres. In 1971, the urbanist William Whyte set up cameras to film mundane daily activities in urban spaces. From a rooftop perspective, his camera zoomed in on Americans eating their lunches, conversing, reading papers, and most notably, people watching. It makes for revelatory viewing on Youtube to see strangers, coworkers and friends so engaged with one another in public (ironically, while being “surveilled” by Whyte). Needless to say, no one in the footage is holding a magic rectangle.

“It’s a cliché among political philosophers that, if you want to create the conditions for tyranny, you sever the bonds of intimate relationship and local community,” observes Judith Shulevitz in a recent article in The Atlantic. Perhaps one day it will be considered an outrageous or even subversive act to gather in small groups to freely exchange thoughts with no digital devices in sight.

In any case, as we slouch toward a 5G panopticon, there are still ways of making yourself less transparent to the corporate state stormsnoopers. Alter the privacy settings on your devices, use browsers like Firefox and search engines other than Google. Install software plug-ins like Ghostery, and disconnect from the more egregious social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Most importantly, refuse to buy into smart home “assistants” from Amazon and other giant monopolies.

Oh, and read those damn software license agreements!

photo © Photographerlondon