Thursday, October 20, 2005

Privacy is actually increasing

From the usual varied speakers on the first day of the Pop!Tech conference, one macro theme related to privacy emerged, the inevitable decrease of privacy as a result of technological advances.

Even though privacy may be decreasing in some ways, it is increasing in others. It would also seem that politics has diminished more privacy recently than technological advances, however the future may be different.

Even though cams may observe one's every move in the physical world, there is considerably more freedom and anonymity in digital worlds, initially with message boards, email lists, chat rooms and now with 3-D environments like Second Life. While adults might be reticent to don a full-size raccoon suit and frolic in their physical neighborhood or specialized bar, they apparently have no trouble joining twenty of their plushy friends to do so online.

Privacy is a perception. The concept of privacy varies tremendously across cultures, for example Americans quickly disgorging personal details of their lives to chagrined Europeans and the full extended Middle Eastern family getting involved in decisions pertaining to one family member to the surprise of Westerners.

Another flavor of cultural differences in privacy stems from a society's focus on the individual or the group. The West's emphasis on individualism probably emphasizes privacy too, whereas Asian cultures with more emphasis on groups may have a broader perception of privacy.

Personal space norms have also influenced our notion of privacy. In the US, with the last several generations, the amount of space available to each person in each new generation has been expanding. Today's teenager cannot image not having his/her own room whereas one family may have had one room a few generations ago. Interestingly, this trend is already reversing as the densities of cities are increasing. Also interestingly, mental space has been increasing more quickly than physical space is now decreasing. With the Internet, entertainment options and free time available, there is a lot more space for one's mind to go.

Physical world privacy is being diminished and this trend will continue especially with the advent of continual video recognition technology, for example, having the search results and profile of a person walking toward you on the street instantly appear in your heads-up display. One hopes the benefits outweigh the detriments, and simultaneously recognizes the technology's inevitability. In addition, in important thought and behavioral ways, privacy, freedom and anonymity are increasing and will probably exponentiate, particularly with immersive simulations and other digital experiences.