The Future of Privacy

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


Question: What will privacy be like in ten years? 

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

That collapsing to a dichotomy between public and private would be remarkable enough, but the second thing that happened at the same time was the cost structure didn’t just change, it reversed.  So, even in the old days, I tell this to my students and they nod politely, I think they maybe believe me, but I could tell they don’t... they can’t really tell what this feels like.  In the old days, if you were a citizen and you had something to say in public, you couldn’t.  Period.  There was no place to upload anything, there was no place to put your opinions as there is in the blogosphere, there was no way to make a video and share it.  You were locked out of public expression.  And as a result anybody who went to overcome the barriers to public expression we regarded as either a narcissist or a kook.  Right?  You were either a rich but untalented self-published author, or you were walking around literally with a signboard around Times Square.  Either way, people sort of wrote you off. 
So the cost of making something public was extraordinarily high.  And in the space of less than a generation, the cost of making things public has fallen to zero.  The number of free services out there that for the price of a two-minute sign up and some typing will broadcast your thoughts globally to be stored by it for all time on Google servers and and so forth.  They’re lining up to help you with public disclosure. 
If you want to keep something private, that’s the hard part.  And so in addition to collapsing to this dichotomy of public and private, we’ve also go this world where keeping things private is a costly, expensive activity.  And making things public is effortless and cheap. 
So privacy I think in the future looks a little bit like privacy looks in big cities now.  Which is to say a series of services will set themselves up which allow for relatively private communications.  Right?  So, you go to... if you go to a club in the sense of either a membership club, or a nightclub, you’re doing it partly because of the enclosure that that environment creates for you.  And I think there are going to be an increasing number of services that, in one way or another, set themselves up as creators of value precisely because they allow for this short of shielded personal life that we used to enjoy offline to come about online.  And in fact, I think a lot of the emotional backlash against Facebook right now is that Facebook set itself up exactly as one of those spaces.  Right?  I mean, god forbid there be a search engine for 18-year old girls.  And so when it was set up as a college, as a college site, a lot of its value was, "We’re shielding the rest of the world from this conversation."  And as it’s grown, the market incentive for Facebook is to maximize incentives and defaults toward disclosure.  That is, I think, the one place where I think that Facebook will probably add more services that allow not just for individuals, but for groups to opt into relatively private areas, I think we always have to say, as a way of shielding themselves from the pressure towards being public. 
And so, I think the big open question, I guess, is in an environment where making things public is one of two defaults and the easier one, what is does the market for privacy look like?  And although there hasn’t been much of a market for privacy so far, because we’ve relied on the inconvenience of the real world to keep a lot of what we do private.  I have a feeling that more and more people are going to make fairly formal calculations that, here is a conversation, or here is a group of people and here is a topic that I want to be semi-private, and will reward spaces and services that offer that kind of privacy as an option.

Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown