Why Technology Will Win the Privacy Debate

The first serious discussion of a legal right to privacy in the United States didn’t come until the year 1890 and that was because of the invention of a technology and that technology was the Kodak camera. 

The first serious discussion of a legal right to privacy in the United States didn’t come until the year 1890 and that was because of the invention of a technology and that technology was the Kodak camera. 


Before cameras were big like what I'm facing right now they sat in studios and you knew when you’re picture was being taken.  Now suddenly people could take this camera out in the street, take a picture of you anywhere and that picture could appear before the whole world in the penny press.  It freaked people out.  They didn’t know what to do about it and so Louise Brandeis and Samuel Warren wrote a now famous paper that was the fundamental intellectual base of looking for a legal right to privacy in the US and what was really happening there was there was a gap between technology and society’s norms.  A new technology came along.  It caused a change.  It was disrupting and unsettling. 

We didn’t know what to do about it and so we feared it and there were efforts to stop it.  There were attempts to create laws in New York State for example that wouldn’t allow your picture to be taken unless you had explicit permission, which would stop people from taking pictures on the street for example in public.  There were a lot of stories in The Times about fiendish Kodakers lying in wait, about a young Vanderbilt who horsewhipped a Kodaker.  President Roosevelt outlawed Kodaking in Washington parks and what happened obviously here is that our norms caught up with this and we figured it out and we now know you’re going to go into the locker room at the gym and take a picture, but you are going to be to take a picture on the street.  We have agreed upon norms.

So now we see a new technology that causes this same effort.  It’s the internet.  It changes how we operate.  Let me give you one more example.  Email, you know I miss the busy signal.  When we had the busy signal on the phone it said you can’t get me now, but that’s gone.  We have call waiting, but we also have email and people think they can send you email anytime.  Well I get so much email today I can’t possibly answer it all.  Under our old norms of handwritten letters and stamps it would be rude not to answer your message.  Now I think it should be rude to expect me to answer immediately.  So what do we do about this?  Well until our norms have adapted, until we have a way to say I'm busy, don’t bother me, you’re not important, we don’t have ways to say that without sounding, so what do we do?  We lie.  We say my email was broken, but then Google will fix that and then we said oh you got caught in my spam filter, but then they fix that too.  Nowadays I hear people say well if you don’t make it into my Google priority inbox sorry you weren’t important, I didn’t see the email.

So we lie about these things because it’s the more polite thing to do.  What we’re really trying to do is to start to negotiate new norms and at some point those new norms will say no you can’t expect me to answer in 30 seconds, I'm busy.  So technology leads.  It has to because we don’t know what it is yet and then we figure out how it operates best and then we’ll figure out our norms as they go. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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