Originally written 2/23/2012
Two thoughts on the innovation of technology came together in my head recently. One is the impact of social networking on the amount of stored personal data available. When one died a generation ago the amount of data generated by and about an average person may be enough to fill a file drawer. Some pictures, some letters, medical records and the like--enough to get a general idea, maybe enough to write a respectable obituary or biography. The generations living today have a vast and ever-increasing amount of data about them stored in the cloud in the form of pictures, videos, blog posts, etc. The direction we are going is ultimately to have a complete copy of our memories, personalities, and more in digital form. As computers get better and better at processing large amounts of data there are interesting ramifications. Ever thought about how that info get’s used after you die?
The other thought on innovation was sparked by Google’s latest news maker, a heads up display that integrates the power of smart phones with augmented reality technology. Basically, they want to put all the information available on the internet directly on top of what you are looking at at the moment. Wearing Google glasses you could, for example, look at the products in a store and see product information floating above each item or price comparisons from other stores. You could look at a restaurant sign and see reviews and recommendations. The possibilities are endless.
When I put these two thoughts together along with the fact that more and more social content is becoming searchable and computers are getting better and better at interpreting social content I begin to see a world that is hardly recognizable. A world in which there are increasingly less secrets. The anonymity that comes with being a face in the crowd diminishes greatly. Here’s what I mean. Let’s assume you had some magical Facebook glasses that could bring up the Facebook profile of any person you looked at. Instantly, you would have access to who this person was friends with, where they worked, what they looked like in high school, what they had for breakfast in 2007. Assuming everyone adopted the technology and the glasses carried your id and location, as I’m sure they would, you would be able to enter a crowded room and scan the room for “suggested friends”. The social implications are mind-boggling.
Currently we seem to have a large amount of control over our information though it is much less than it was ten or even five years ago. At this point the rule of thumb is, if you don’t want people to know about it, don’t put it on the internet. But the direction of information technology and trends in marketing suggests that it will get more and more difficult to keep corporations, government entities, and even benign social networks out of your personal information. If you carry a smartphone or even use a credit card there are a lot of steps you would have to take to keep your location, purchase history, and other information to yourself. If the people around you carry smartphones then there’s really nothing you can do to keep your image off the internet. I received a text from an acquaintance the other day with a picture he had taken of his son in a restaurant. There I was in the background. We hadn’t noticed each other at the time, but when he looked back at his pictures he noticed me there.
Is this bad? It got me to thinking historically. Is this really such a huge shift for the human race? A few generations ago most people lived in small communities or in a rural setting where their family or tribe was the only social interaction they had. Secrets were considered dangerous to the community. Privacy only existed inside your head and even that wasn’t safe from the probing questions of your elders. The result was social conformity and greater checks and balances over morality. If a man abused his family, it would be found out, and he would be dealt with. If a woman lied to her neighbor everyone would soon know about it and she would face the consequences. What if the proliferation of widely available personal information is actually bringing us to a state of greater community and the ideal of a “global village”? Privacy groups assume a lack of privacy is a bad thing, but what will it really lead to?
If history is a guide then none of us know.