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Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky is a writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He is an adjunct professor at New York University's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program[…]

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

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

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

Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown