07 June 2013

Privacy And the Virtual Evolution from Global Village to One Big City

My cousin lived in the Pacific Islands for a time. He told me that privacy was a gift in that environment. The little huts were built in a cluster and there weren't many private rooms or walls. You got privacy only if others looked away as you dressed, showered, or went about your business.

Marshall McLuhan introduced the term "global village," and it's worth remembering the dynamics of a village vs. a city. In a city, a person has anonymity. In a village, not only does everyone know you but they know who your grandparents are, where you are going, what your normal patterns are, and what you talk about with your spouse or kids. Privacy, really, got created on farms and in cities. It wasn't the product of a village.

But now walls that separated us into different enclaves are gradually coming down.

Zuckerberg's philosophy on Facebook is to push towards more sharing each iteration of changes. For him, you're the same person among work friends, church friends, neighbors, and old college buddies. Even the privacy of having different roles is eroding on the social media that is - at least for now - most popular.

The NSA is filtering all of our information to find threats. Anything that gets categorized as a threat - anything that is a trigger for concern - becomes the cause for knowing more about a person. The government respects your privacy only up to a point and various officials have argued that privacy is not included in the Bill of Rights.

As you browse the Internet, you leave a trail of cookies. Worse, if you do it on your Smart Phone it includes information about your location and travel patterns as you search for restaurants, travel routes, bargains or porn.

For now, the Internet has brought us back to the model of the village. People who know us know who we are whether we're playing the role of parent or employee, drinking buddy or church elder, political activist or cut-up. The city gave us different audiences for each of these roles. The village does not. And the community can more easily monitor us to determine if we're a threat or a potential source for sales and revenues. It knows when our patterns are in character or out of character, knows where we are likely to go and what we're likely to buy.

The question now is whether the village is an inevitable product of the Internet or if the city is still an option. Turning physical villages into physical cities was a slow, complex, and expensive process. It may be that McLuhan's global village is something we'll outgrow, a phase of our virtual development that mirrors the earlier development in the physical world. At least that's my bet. And if so, that means we'll soon be living in one big, global city. It sounds less charming than McLuhan's global village but the entertainment, education, and employment prospects in a city are more interesting and varied. Cities give us a broader array of options about who to be. And one thing that seems true of progress is that it always moves in the direction of more, rather than fewer, options.

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