Brief history of privacy, and a projection to the future

Privacy, as people currently think of it, is a modern invention.

If you go back 20 000 years, we lived in caves, where nobody had a second of peace. If you go back 200 years, practically everyone lived in small villages, where you had privacy in your home, but in practice everyone knew what everyone was up to.

The Village Privacy Model had a strong influence on people’s behaviour. If you behave in a manner that’s unacceptable to the community, you knew everyone around you go to know it, and you still had to face them. Mess up badly enough, and your life became very hard, regardless of whether there were “official” sanctions against you or not.

Enter urbanisation. People are moving into cities, where you’re effectively anonymous. It’s very easy to go and misbehave in a manner that wasn’t possible in smaller communities, and have no repercussions on it whatsoever. You won’t see those people again. You’re in the City Model of Privacy.

What this also means is the reverse – you can assume you’re in semi private mode at all times. Not only are you safe in your home, you’re also anonymous outside. I think this is having significant influence on how people perceive the expected level of privacy you have now – while at the village level there was almost no expectation of privacy, you can now expect privacy at all times.

Even further, enter Online use. You’re even more anonymous. Go to some random site to troll and there’ll be no repercussions. Nobody will know who you are. Nobody has the resources to track people.

Except you can’t assume this anymore. Technology caught up.

We’re entering a phase where it’s sensible to assume someone sees you at all times, and is probably making a recording of it. Both online and offline.

What inspired this post is this video. Some idiot tripped and severely hurt a young hockey player. It got recorded and went viral, and effectively ruined his life.

So for whatever it’s worth, we’re now getting back to the Village Model, from the brief experiment of the City Model. It’s Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village, with all of it’s privacy implications. He didn’t personally witness the computing technology explosion and so didn’t predict the implications to the extreme, but I’m sure he’d be excited if he was living today.

A lot of people are finding this new lack of privace extremely creepy and I don’t blame them. It’ll be interesting to see how the society adjusts. Going back to City Model is not going to happen.

One thought on “Brief history of privacy, and a projection to the future

  1. wetgenes (@wetgenes)

    Yup, perhaps the important part about privacy that is hard to explain to users is that keeping things private is rather hard.

    Its just not the default state, technology creators are not so evil that they wish to leak all your details its just that there is no real point in putting the tremendous amounts of effort involved in hiding your information perfectly. The only real way to do it is to just refuse to accept any information from users. Even when you really really try it will probably go wrong, IE nobody wants to leak passwords and people try hard not to, however password hacks/dumps still happen.

    Personally I think emails and IPs need to be considered front facing public information, if the user wants to hide this information then they need to take steps to hide it. Not me. It is easy to get fake email accounts, its easy to use bouncers to hide your IP. If the user wants that privacy then it is up to them to make it happen.

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