Quote of the Day About Youth and Privacy

What we’re discussing is something more radical if only because it is more ordinary: the fact that we are in the sticky center of a vast psychological experiment, one that’s only just begun to show results. More young people are putting more personal information out in public than any older person ever would–and yet they seem mysteriously healthy and normal, save for an entirely different definition of privacy. From their perspective, it’s the extreme caution of the earlier generation that’s the narcissistic thing. Or, as Kitty put it to me, "Why not? What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Twenty years down the road, someone’s gonna find your picture? Just make sure it’s a great picture."

And after all, there is another way to look at this shift. Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

So it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn’t exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones. For someone like me, who grew up sealing my diary with a literal lock, this may be tough to accept. But under current circumstances, a defiant belief in holding things close to your chest might not be high-minded. It might be an artifact–quaint and naïve, like a determined faith that virginity keeps ladies pure. Or at least that might be true for someone who has grown up "putting themselves out there" and found that the benefits of being transparent make the risks worth it….

In essence, every young person in America has become, in the literal sense, a public figure. And so they have adopted the skills that celebrities learn in order not to go crazy: enjoying the attention instead of fighting it–and doing their own publicity before somebody does it for them.

That’s from New York Magazine on young people, the internet, and the evaporation of privacy. Hat tip to the always-provocative Virginia Postrel for the pointer.

Here’s my post on how private conversations are becoming public in Facebook. Here’s Paul Saffo’s wrongheaded post on why teens are the unfortunate first generation to publicly air their musings. He "pities" my generation because "in a few decades their sophomoric musings will deliver a vast embarrassment utterly unknown to earlier generations." Or we’re the first generation that has the opportunity to publicly air our musings, get feedback, stand corrected, and express ourselves.

6 comments on “Quote of the Day About Youth and Privacy
  • I couldn’t agree more, Ben.

    Less privacy means less secrecy, more honesty, truth and connectedness in society. Although everyone has a right to privacy, that doesn’t mean it is the healthiest position for a society to be in.

    Private ballots here in Canada were put in place to keep people from bullying you into voting for their candidates. I think the need for privacy, therefore, represents how unsafe and intolerant the world is.

    Hopefully this voluntary move towards less privacy means the world (despite the news) is becoming a safer and more tolerant place.

  • Chris, I’m glad you mentioned transparency. Instead of thinking of this change as a move towards less privacy, the paradigm should be thought of as a move towards more transparency. Programmers open source code to allow anyone to find errors. The result is a more trustworthy system. What if we open sourced our lives?

    In game theory, cooperation is usually the best strategy to make everyone better off. But, a small number of cheaters can gain an advantage over cooperators in any given system or society if certain conditions are met. To cheat, cheaters must be able to feign one position, while really taking the other. If the pool of cooperators is large enough or information about interactions is generally private, cheaters can pull the same tricks on every individual.

    In a more transparent society, more cheaters can be eliminated because information relating to their past interactions is easier to find. The payoff for cheating in an interaction is reduced, which reduces the number of cheaters. Fewer cheaters means more cooperators. More cooperation is better for everyone.

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