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.


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