Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Privacy, time and fairy lights

Just about everyone is communicating more - and in more ways - than ever and this naturally has an effect on our ideas of privacy.

More and more personal information is stored in data centers and much of that is potentially retrievable by anyone, but the very volume of data out there is perhaps our best protection. Most of the trivial stuff is lost and will never be retrieved - and, even if it was, what would it matter?

Breaches of privacy matter only when one's life is disrupted - for example when one's bank account has been tampered with, or one's friends alienated or offended, or one's house broken into.

As technologies change so do - and must - attitudes. Younger people are clearly less concerned about making information about (and images of) themselves public than previous generations were. There were always teenage exhibitionists, even if today's technologies allow exhibitionism on a much larger scale. The class clown has gone global, the school rebel is part of a worldwide protest movement.

But for every natural rebel or exhibitionist, then and now, there are sure to be many more individuals who have no difficulty maintaining their privacy and dignity and sense of balance.

Some changes are deeper, however. Technologies like the printed book and pen and paper encouraged silent, private reading and writing. And, significantly, the communication process is delayed in these instances and long periods of time elapse between the writing and the reading, months or years in the case of books, days or weeks in the case of letters or periodicals.

By contrast, digital technologies facilitate instant communication with peers in a context of high levels of sensory stimulation so that the private sphere of the silent reader is being crowded out.

This is the real problem for anyone who values minds attuned to slower-moving and important things, companions who sit quietly over a coffee, and who, when they talk, take you into a slower, deeper world where thoughts are more like grand orbiting planets than flickering fairy lights.

But then, fairy lights have their charm...