I’ll Be Your Private Dancer

Over at The Atlantic, they’ve posted a video that attempts to illustrate an answer to the question, “What if Google Maps went live?” The video makers take a zoomed-in satellite view of Google Maps and overlay people interacting in a public art event, along with others just walking and riding bikes, oblivious to all of us “watching” them on our computers.

From its description, it sounds like it should be creepy, but it comes off more as whimsical. Of course, pretty much anytime someone uses the word “creepy” to describe a new technology, it actually means “progress” to those who end up living with the technology. “My entire life will be on a phone? Creepy.” “The earth will be surrounded by thousands of satellites? Creepy.” “You will be able to freeze moments of my life just by pointing that box at me? Creepy.”

Nevertheless, privacy is still a huge concern everywhere, or at least in the media. Not a week goes by but some company is hacked, so that the details of millions of people are leaked. Most recently it was (supposedly) the FBI, from whom hackers are claiming to have lifted the private information of one million Apple device users, reiterating the I-don’t-know-how-old adage that the definition of a smartphone is “a tracking device that also makes calls.”

But it’s not just our data that’s out there, but our daily activities. CCTV cameras are ubiquitous, and where they’re not there are camera phones to fill in the coverage. It’s gotten to the point that almost every news story of every random happening in a city can now accompanied by video, because, well, we have it.

And, of course, there’s social media and YouTube and every other platform that the Internet gives us and which we use to share our lives with as many people as will pay attention. All of which led to infamous statement by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that privacy isn’t a “social norm“ anymore.

Truth is, privacy might eventually become an outmoded concept. Heck, what we consider privacy now would be exhibitionism by somebody a century ago, what with our social security numbers, filling out forms for everything, cameras everywhere, posting on the Internet, social media, credit cards. I once heard (but can’t verify, unfortunately, so take this with a shaker of salt) that putting numbers on houses was originally considered a privacy breach by some. “Anybody can know where I live? Creepy.”

Even today we have different definitions of privacy. Compare somebody who lives in a city with somebody who lives in the country. Or somebody that lives in an apartment building and somebody that lives in a single family home on 10 acres.

What’s really missing from today’s conversation about privacy, though, are the benefits of losing it. Like those aforementioned house numbers, the benefits of having an address far, far, far outweigh the fact that any random person can figure out where you live with just a number and a street. In fact, the only benefit really being touted from our loss of privacy is by advertisers and marketers who claim that advertising will become less annoying for being better targeted. I don’t really count that as a pure benefit, though, at least not to me-as-consumer. That’s like saying, “We’re only going to be kind of jerks to you.”

But there will be some strong benefits. Like the decrease of credit card and identity theft. Someone steals and tries to use your passport to board a plane, but an automatic check of Facebook or LinkedIn or some future universal system reveals that you’re actually at a sushi place three states away.

Other crimes have the potential of going down. Moral character was once defined by somebody whom I can’t find on Google as “What you do when nobody’s watching.” The unspoken corollary being that everybody’s good when everybody’s watching. Well, with lack of privacy, everybody will always be watching.

Obviously, that’s not a compelling list, and that latter one is a bit icky, but there will be huge benefits that even now we’re just starting to learn in an era of rampant sharing. The truth is, we’ll value our privacy so long as it has value. When something more valuable comes along, we’ll trade our privacy for that. It’s creepy. It also might be progress.