Tuesday, May 4, 2010

privacy: the intersection of technology & culture

Just in time for Choose Privacy Week.

I may have made a terrible mistake last weekend. I published something on the internet I should not have. Oh, nothing illegal or sexual or cruel to someone else. It was a light piece, a humorous version of a recipe -- for an alcoholic beverage.

This in spite of being well educated and internet savvy. Nor was it for lack of thinking over the consequences and making a choice. For one thing, it was put up as a "Note" on Facebook, and my Notes are set to be visible to friends only. But, knowing that privacy settings are neither foolproof, nor hackerproof, nor unchanging, I asked the test question: Would I be willing to publish this, under my own name, in a print magazine (if I could find a magazine willing to pay for it)? Is it appropriate in subject and tone for a respectable, middle-aged female in the United States in the early 21st century? Given that humor was clearly intended (even if some readers might happen to not find it personally funny), and that in the 21st century it's o.k. for women to joke, I decided to go ahead. (BTW, at least three of my friends were amused.)

The problem is that internet "speech" (including writing and even including reading (think Google searches)) has more possible consequences than speech in the meat world had before the web let everybody watch everybody all the time. -- More consequences than digital natives, much less digital immigrants (like yours-elderly-truly), can predict. Material on the web is potentially available to everyone -- including irrational people, mistaken people, people who need to judge others poorly to feel o.k. about themselves, mean people, people who can profit from another's detriment.

Furthermore, culture values are changing, evolving along with the technology and any previous choices society has made regarding the technology, not to mention other influences. Even a decade ago, no employer (except for very sensitive jobs, such as the CIA) or educational institution would think of invading a prospect's private parties in order to judge character. Now checking for social media revelations of party behavior is becoming commonplace. Part of this change is due to a growing lack of respect for the concept of privacy, and part to a growing insistence on moral perfection, untempered, as in earlier "puritanical" eras, by built-in loopholes or mercy.

And there seems to be a growing seriousness. Some people would rather see a person as vicious (in the sense of "full of vice") or insane than joking. Making one's statements increasingly outrageous in order to signal "this is a joke," only increases the judgement. People like this either have no concept of humor, or feel that it is invalid, always a cover-up for the "true," unacceptable feelings. And it seems that there are more and more of these super-serious people. Or maybe the percentage hasn't changed much, but every person, and every comment, comes into contact with so many more people, that the sheer numbers and frequency of fringe opinions can cause harm.

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