Privacy Is An Anomaly

Watching the BBC’s Virtual Revolution this evening, I was struck by how alarmist it was on the subject of privacy. All kinds of assertions were made about how “worrying” or “dangerous” it is to have specific bits of information in the hands of companies or organisations without offering any rationale as to why. I guess ultimately it stuck me how different the program makers world view was compared to my own.

I do not share these concerns about privacy, not because I’m naive about what’s being stored, but because I realised the new reality of the web early enough in life to never become attached to this notion of privacy in the first place.

For millions of years, the concept of privacy was virtually non-existent. Humans existed in a network of extended families and tribes all living and working together. All their interactions with each other; their opinions, preferences, commercial history, skills, work performance, punctuality and credibility would have known to everyone they came into contact with. And if there was someone you didn’t know much about, the social network would provide that information to you free of charge through a mechanism known as “gossip”. The aggregate of all this reputation is what we commonly refer to as your “reputation”. Wise people learnt to carefully cultivate their reputation, but society was generally forgiving enough to allow for youthful exuberance or honest mistakes.

Then came the industrial revolution and the mass migration from rural villages to large cities. It was only when people started moving into cities that your work colleagues and your neighbours became separate groups of people. Then with the emergence of leisure time and car use, new groups such as “drinking buddies” or “golfing friends” arose. Add to this the growth of large corporate or government institutions that you can interact with anonymously and the age of privacy was born.

The levels of privacy and secrecy that were possible in the 20th century would have been inconceivable to someone born into the Roman Empire or a hunter gatherer 50,000 years ago. But that privacy was built, not out of a principle but out of inconvenience. It was just too hard to store, filter and transmit all the information about each individual. But the internet changes all that.

The last 100 years were an anomaly, a blip, and it’s all about to end. The inescapable reality is that, just as you can’t delete something you’ve done from someone else’s memory or stop them telling others about it, you cannot delete information from the web, and you cannot stop it from being copied around.

We’re going back to the normality of the pre-industrial age where your reputation means everything. My advice is to accept that everything you ever say, buy, make or do will be known to everyone you ever meet. And if there happens to be an embarrassing photo of you out there on tweetpic, stop complaining and just make sure there’s enough positive stuff out there to outweigh it. If you do a good enough job, nobody will ever see that photo because it will be buried somewhere on page 53 of Google’s search results.