Tuesday, February 21, 2006

as we enter the age of information, a look back at the age of privacy

Some random thoughts....

If we are supposedly entering the information age, what is the age we are leaving behind? I'd argue that we are exiting the age of privacy.

I'd like to use the word privacy in the broadest sense: "lack of information", "secrets", "mystery"...anything that connotes absence of signal". In other words, people can lose their privacy but so can a bird, a rock, a mathematical riddle, or a meme.

Clearly the information age creates value, but are we thinking enough about what is being lost? No doubt transparency breeds honesty and accountability and a lot of good things. Let's think about it from a tribal perspective and nature's perspective.

In nature, life is about the pursuit of information about the environment, conspecifics, prey, predators, while simultaneously minimizing revealing information about oneself to others. The former enhances fitness by enabling good decisions while the latter may reduce fitness by creating asymmetric advantage to others. It's about signals, illegitimate signals, communication, and miscommunication. However, it's also about trust.

There are cases where revealing oneself judiciously is critical: to family, to offspring, to potential mates, and lastly, to potential allies. It is in this last situation where trust is vital. To relatives, kin altruism fosters mutual sharing of vital information. To allies, however, reciprocal altruism (conditional trust) is what builds value. Most organisms extend this trust carefully, which means revealing signals about oneself is a judicious manner as such trust is reciprocated.

Thus, people who seek privacy are not anti-informationists. They simply want to reveal information to only those they trust and vice versa. What they lament about the information age is that information is getting revealed and exploited asymmetrically. Take phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses. In the old world, people used to love hearing the phone ring because it was almost always a friend or a family on the other side. Same with getting mail, which was a revered ritual for many (walking to the mail box, driving to the post office) and an activity filled with hope. Now people have caller IDs to screen calls and have trashcans set up next to the mail box? Why? "information" has enabled strangers to access aspects of ourselves that exploit pre-existing communication channels that served the tribal era, but are now exposed to asymmetric gains.

When it comes to letters, people send them because they believe it's information that others want to receive. That explains the x-mas form letter. In reality, what people crave is the personal connection, commitment, effort, endeavor for others. The hand-written letter has become the highest method of honoring others, and it's value as a social asset is now the highest it's ever been.


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