Archive for March, 2008

Privacy in the digital age

We seem to think about privacy a lot in America. We go to great measures to ensure our privacy is protected. We have even seen our Supreme Court consider the extent of our privacy. When we discuss advances in technology, we cannot ignore how those advances affect our privacy.

As Howard Rheingold states in Smart Mobs, “Loss of privacy is perhaps the most obvious shadow side of technological cooperation systems…The surveillance state that Orwell feared was puny in its power in comparison to the panoptic web we have woven around us” (xxi).

We value privacy so much and yet, we are willing to give up certain aspects of our privacy in order to be linked into the social networks occurring with technology. Posting my photo under my name and the college I’m currently attending is okay…but my phone number better not be listed in the phonebook! We want to have control over the privacy we protect and the privacy we let slide.

Technology can also free us from the limitations of ourselves and our physical space and, in deed, offer us greater privacy. While not mentioned in Smart Mobs, the privacy that comes with the Internet can be very liberating and beneficial. Take for instance an HIV+ person who wants information about how to have safe sex and yet is too embarrassed or ashamed to ask a doctor or friend. The privacy of the Internet provides the ability to search for answers to embarrassing, yet imperative questions. The most poignant example of the brighter side of the privacy-technology issue is Rheingold’s discussion of the privacy mobile phone use affords teenagers in Japan. Private conversations via SMS can take place in a busy household or public space.

Teenagers’ desire to hold private conversations with their friends is not a new phenomenon, nor one limited to the Japanese. In Kenya, the urban youth have developed their own language in order to talk to their friends in their small, private-less homes. Shang, as it is called, is a mix of English and Swahili and is constantly changing so as to throw off the adults. Shang is also used via SMS, but with the purposes of using the shortest word possible in order to save space in the message. In a country where it is hard to find a landline and functioning, cheap Internet access, SMS is an ideal method of communication for everyone, not just teenagers. In addition to socializing, a lot of business, banking, and politicking occurs via text messaging.

As technology shifts the paradigm of how we communicate, I believe it will also shift the paradigm of how we view our privacy.


See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

Advocacy: What is it exactly? Is it not the promotion of something? Google’s policy against allowing “advocacy” on its AdWords is the most ridiculous thing I’ve read in a very long time. What happened to their motto: Do no evil? Although Google would no doubt disagree, I would consider the promotion of things and services—marketing, as we tend to call it—advocacy. I would also consider editorializing by news organizations advocacy. And yet, their ads are full of marketing and news organizations. Since Google partially depends on searching news, it couldn’t possible consider news organizations “advocacy” organizations. In Battelle’s blog, he states, “Guess it all comes down to who’s giving them the money.”

As we read on the first page of Dan Gillmor’s We the Media, September 11, 2001, shifted the paradigm for online news (blogs and news organizations) and, therefore, online news search. Since then, news organizations have had to change the way they present news to their consumers. Battelle points to the example of the Economist as a news organization that hasn’t gotten on the online bandwagon. However, has he states, a year is a very short time and a lot has changed. The Economist has reached out to online news consumers while at the same time promoting their online services in their print editions. As an Economist subscriber, I can attest to the fact that each issue has a teaser that sends the reader online to read more on a unique story not found on the pages of the print edition. So, while they may be slow to be proactive about their online services, news organizations have no choice but to go online and hope there are enough people like me who are willing to pay for the tactile satisfaction of print editions.

With even the dinosaurs of the news organizations going online, this opens up more options for our searching tentacles to find. Our post-September 11th culture more than craves searching for news, but feels it is owed news—owed answers. In deed, we are owed answers. We are owed transparency in our government’s actions and we are owed understanding of the world’s events. But, we search for information that is not always owed to us. When search crosses that sometimes hazy line between seeking information that we have a right to and seeking information that we may not have a right to, privacy issues turn up. Battelle states, “…as many privacy advocates fear, perhaps it has noting to do with a right to know—but rather simply the ability to know” (193). As is always the question when we are on the threshold of innovation: Just because we can do it, does it mean we should do it? Evil, after all, is obsessed with the “can” and ignores the “should.”


Google’s socially penetrative power is exemplified in the fact that it has recently been added to the dictionary as a noun and a verb. As one article in Sci-Tech Today noted, Google has joined the ranks of Kleenex, Xerox, Band-Aid, and other companies or products to have become so deeply ingrained in our culture that they no longer exist as a brand, but as the catch-all for their product relatives.Google’s rise to preeminence in the world of online search engines is not news. We have increasingly become accustomed to its existence and to its addition to our social lexicon. However, how many of us have stopped to ask “why”? Why has an Internet search engine become so popular? Why has Google infiltrated our culture with such vigor? The most intriguing aspects of John Battelle’s book, The Search, are his existential musings on these very questions. His answer: Humanity’s unrelenting quest for knowledge.Unfortunately, this existential premise was only his entry point for setting the stage for and then discussing Google’s rise as THE means through which most of us search the Internet. While interesting to some, no doubt, what I find more curious than the life stories of the most valuable players in the world of Internet search, is how Google has shaped how we think of each other…and how we think ourselves.

When we “Google” ourselves, we are seeking to know how the world views us. We are intrigued by the notion that we can see how we are seen beyond our own eyes. This cultural anthropological search of ourselves allows us to view our place in society through the eyes of Google’s results. Before Google, newspaper clippings tucked away in a dusty scrapbook were our only proof that those beyond our small world knew we existed. We held those clippings tight and passed them on to our children so they too could know that we did, in fact, have a place in society—that we mattered.

A metamorphosis has occurred. We have woken up to find our immortality no longer contained in a scrapbook, but in an entity without any physical properties. We imagine this entity, cyberspace, has no barriers. We have woken up to find our ability to be known and to be viewed is infinite. Google has given us a sense of immortality.