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Privacy and Exhibition

This blog has been in existence for just over two years now and one of the most common themes I cover and encounter in my reading for these entries has been privacy. There is an essential conflict at the center of recent web-based services and technologies over privacy and the public display of data. On the one hand, we (as someone speaking from a North American perspective) value privacy in a variety of senses - ranging from property laws, to surveillance, to women's rights. Privacy has become an important piece of a capitalist society. On the other hand, many of the new web-based and new media technologies and services thrive on the unshrouding of previously private information. We display versions of our selves through online social networks, we allow our shops to track our purchases, and we freely enter information about ourselves into many a survey.

What are we to make of this? Should we be afraid of the exploitation of the data we hand over, or should we be grateful for the better service it results in? How can we determine which entities are worthy of our trust, or should we simply throw caution to the wind and deceive through openness?

These types of discussions have gone back and forth for years now. I tend to fall on the side that notions of privacy are changing to allow for a greater level of surveillance in exchange for greater return value - with the critical provision that both parties in the exchange are aware and buy-in to the transaction. This is clearly an idealistic vision, but it's interesting to look at how privacy/exhibitionism (or how one acts as the other) is dealt with in coverage of new media. These are a few articles I've come across recently:


  • "5 Tracking Apps to Help You Out in 2008" - MakeUseOf.com. This entry is a good example of the full embrace of the value-for-data exchange. Users of the applications the author suggests hand over personal data and they receive targeted and personalized service. Implicit in this is the trust of the service provider.

  • "Sears: Come see the softer side of spyware" - ars technica. Despite the chuckle-inducing title, this article is interesting because it demonstrates the boundaries of our exhibitionism. Many people will gladly install things like the Yahoo toolbar or RescueTime (as mentioned in the previous item) and allow their attention data to be tracked - but when it comes to Sears? No way. I don't mean to belittle the threat of spyware, it's a serious issue and shouldn't be tolerated, but much of this criticism seems to stem from the fact that this is a major corporation doing the surveillance rather than a cute little Web 2.0 start up. Really, both can do serious damage with that information.

  • "The 2007 International Privacy Ranking" - Privacy International. This graphic ranks different countries' respective protection of privacy. The only country that ranks even reasonably well is Greece. I'm curious what Privacy International would think of a distributed panoptic society in which the surveillance is occurring in a peer-to-peer fashion instead of top-down.

  • "Even Boring Blogs Are Things of Beauty in Some Artists' Eyes" - Andrew La Valee for WSJ.com. I'm linking to a Rhizome page since I can't find the article on WSJ.com. I too have been fascinated by "boring" blogs, or the blogs that make up the lifeblood of the medium. At one point last year, I started a meta-boring blog called Welcome to the Dog Show. Low-traffic personal blogs are why the medium exists and why it is a significant cultural entity. At the core of these "boring" blogs is the willing and joyful abandonment of privacy. These small, personal blogs demonstrate our newfound love for exhibitionism.

What's interesting to note is where we draw boundaries. Sears and K-Mart using attention data to improve market awareness: not OK; Mint using personal financial information to suggest better services: OK. Top-down surveillance societies: not OK; Boring Blogs (i.e. exhibitionism on a mass scale): OK.

I don't believe there will ever be a consensus over what level of privacy or surveillance is acceptable/possible in these new media environments. I do believe, however, that the exhibitionism of these media is not going anywhere, and if for that reason alone, our notions of privacy will necessarily adapt.