The Future of Privacy

Question: What will privacy be like in ten years? 

Clay Shirky: The big change in privacy in my view has \r\nalready happened with the flow of socially coordinating activity online,\r\n right?  It was actually at the moment where we stopped being virtual, \r\nright, when the Internet stopped being a “what happens in Vegas, stays \r\nin Vegas” place and started just being a tool for coordinating a regular\r\n life.  Like the Internet is no longer an alternative to real life, it’s\r\n a tool for arranging it.  And at that moment, we lost something that we\r\n used to call personal life.  Right?
Personal life was, you \r\ncould walk down the street, you could be out in the park, you could be \r\nat a party.  You were in public, but you were unobserved.  Right?  So, \r\nyou could say things to your friends, and if someone overheard you, you \r\nwouldn’t react as if you had a right to privacy while walking down Fifth\r\n Avenue, but you would assume, quite reasonably that you weren’t under \r\nany kind of surveillance.  And that’s gone, right?  What the network \r\ndoes is it collapses that whole spectrum of personal life into a single \r\ndichotomy—"private" or "public."  And you have to stand on one side of \r\nthat line or the other.  So, right away, that’s something we’re not used\r\n to and we’re not good at.  I mean, prior to Facebook, Greta Garbo was \r\nthe only person any of us had every heard of who had anything that could\r\n be called privacy preferences.  We just, we kind of knew when to say \r\nsomething in relative confidence and you knew when you could say \r\nsomething on the street corner, and we knew when to shout things from \r\nthe rooftops.  But there was a spectrum there, and now there’s not. 

That\r\n collapsing to a dichotomy between public and private would be \r\nremarkable enough, but the second thing that happened at the same time \r\nwas the cost structure didn’t just change, it reversed.  So, even in the\r\n old days, I tell this to my students and they nod politely, I think \r\nthey maybe believe me, but I could tell they don’t... they can’t really \r\ntell what this feels like.  In the old days, if you were a citizen and \r\nyou had something to say in public, you couldn’t.  Period.  There was no\r\n place to upload anything, there was no place to put your opinions as \r\nthere is in the blogosphere, there was no way to make a video and share \r\nit.  You were locked out of public expression.  And as a result anybody \r\nwho went to overcome the barriers to public expression we regarded as \r\neither a narcissist or a kook.  Right?  You were either a rich but \r\nuntalented self-published author, or you were walking around literally \r\nwith a signboard around Times Square.  Either way, people sort of wrote \r\nyou off. 
So the cost of making something public was \r\nextraordinarily high.  And in the space of less than a generation, the \r\ncost of making things public has fallen to zero.  The number of free \r\nservices out there that for the price of a two-minute sign up and some \r\ntyping will broadcast your thoughts globally to be stored by it for all \r\ntime on Google servers and and so forth.  They’re lining up \r\nto help you with public disclosure. 
If you want to keep \r\nsomething private, that’s the hard part.  And so in addition to \r\ncollapsing to this dichotomy of public and private, we’ve also go this \r\nworld where keeping things private is a costly, expensive activity.  And\r\n making things public is effortless and cheap. 
So privacy I \r\nthink in the future looks a little bit like privacy looks in big cities \r\nnow.  Which is to say a series of services will set themselves up which \r\nallow for relatively private communications.  Right?  So, you go to... \r\nif you go to a club in the sense of either a membership club, or a \r\nnightclub, you’re doing it partly because of the enclosure that that \r\nenvironment creates for you.  And I think there are going to be an \r\nincreasing number of services that, in one way or another, set \r\nthemselves up as creators of value precisely because they allow for this\r\n short of shielded personal life that we used to enjoy offline to come \r\nabout online.  And in fact, I think a lot of the emotional backlash \r\nagainst Facebook right now is that Facebook set itself up exactly as one\r\n of those spaces.  Right?  I mean, god forbid there be a search engine \r\nfor 18-year old girls.  And so when it was set up as a college, as a \r\ncollege site, a lot of its value was, "We’re shielding the rest of the \r\nworld from this conversation."  And as it’s grown, the market incentive \r\nfor Facebook is to maximize incentives and defaults toward disclosure.  \r\nThat is, I think, the one place where I think that Facebook will \r\nprobably add more services that allow not just for individuals, but for \r\ngroups to opt into relatively private areas, I think we always have to \r\nsay, as a way of shielding themselves from the pressure towards being \r\npublic. 
And so, I think the big open question, I guess, is in\r\n an environment where making things public is one of two defaults and \r\nthe easier one, what is does the market for privacy look like?  And \r\nalthough there hasn’t been much of a market for privacy so far, because \r\nwe’ve relied on the inconvenience of the real world to keep a lot of \r\nwhat we do private.  I have a feeling that more and more people are \r\ngoing to make fairly formal calculations that, here is a conversation, \r\nor here is a group of people and here is a topic that I want to be \r\nsemi-private, and will reward spaces and services that offer that kind \r\nof privacy as an option.

Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown

More and more people are going to make fairly formal calculations to reward spaces and services that offer privacy as an option.

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