The concern of privacy

I read an interesting article on USA Today’s website: “Some ditch social networks to reclaim time, privacy


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The reporting is on the trend of more and more people quitting social networks.  What spoke to me most is how much of a minority opinion this was. Here’s a quote:

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Lucca, Italy-based Seppukoo helped 20,000 people erase themselves from Facebook after the site launched last fall. Two-month-old Web 2.0 Suicide Machine — where a noose dangles near a ticker tracking the digital mayhem (“181,898 friends have been unfriended, 329,908 tweets removed”) — has been used by 2,600 people. Thousands more are waiting to be accommodated by the site’s small server, says Walter Langelaar, 32, one of three programmers who created the “art project” for Moddr, a media lab in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

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20,000 people?

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2,600 people?

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Facebook has 400 Million active users. Twitter is in the mid 8-digits. Myspace is in the hundreds of millions.

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With more users, you’ll have more attrition — I don’t think the “trend” being reported here is much to think about. Facebook has maintained incredible user-activation (50% of it’s users log-in daily). The examples in the article are clearly  from a minority.

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My friend Ben Casnocha posted yesterday about privacy, RIP Privacy and Identiy Synthesis on the Web.  It’s a good read, and I would wager he would agree with my statements above, especially given his statement that: “many users do not understand how their personal information is tracked and displayed. But I do not think the majority mainstream users of any age care and I think no young people care. Young people will soon replace old people.”

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Ben and I may be buying slinkys on this one, but the privacy argument is becoming moot.  Here’s my outlook:

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  1. There are still large risks associated with giving up privacy, but far fewer than decades past.
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  3. Our culture is clearly headed to sharing more, not less, information.
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Bottom Line:  Privacy is dying. We are wasting our time trying to save it. Instead, let’s make the world safer for those who are living out in the open — because pretty soon, the majority of us will be.

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It sounds radical, and full of the brashness of youth, but… I’m pretty sure it’s correct. I think that message needs to be spread wide and far. And I don’t just mean removing the risk to US Citizens like those profiled in USA Today above, I mean protesters in Iran. As Jonathan Zittrain noticed in a talk I attended last year, Iran could pretty easily/cheeply use Amazon Mechanical Turk to identify and persecute dissidents (starts at 32:45).  The safety of privacy will increasingly be an illusion that can be destroyed almost at-will by those with real power.

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You want that in twitter friendly length?  No problem. Put this in your pipe and tweet it:

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“Focus on making the world safer for living without privacy — soon, you won’t have any left.” /via @tylerwillis  http://bit.ly/bOdSSN

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.