Now that PRISM has been unveiled, there are (and will be) significant discussions about personal privacy and government monitoring of personal communications. There are several levels or developing issues and trends that this revelation triggers for all of us to think about.
The fast answer is that there is no longer any privacy. Privacy as our grandparents knew it is gone. The definition of privacy is mutable; it is constantly being redefined through time. What was considered privacy 100 years ago is practically non-existent now. What was considered privacy even 10 years ago is no longer existent.
A century ago, when the landline telephone business was starting to penetrate the marketplace in America, the most cited reason to not getting one was invasion of privacy. Having a device from outside the home come into my home? That is an invasion of my privacy as a citizen! How quaint that sounds today. This is precisely the point: what our grandparents or great-grandparents thought was an invasion of privacy is entirely different from our view today.
Generally speaking we, as consumers, have always allowed convenience to trump just about everything else. This is certainly true relative to our use of technology. GPS on our phones means we can use all sorts of great apps, but it means that other people know exactly where we are and when we are there. We have often yielded privacy for personal convenience, which makes some of our complaints about privacy a bit hypocritical. What is that old phrase about cake?
In 2006, before the iPhone and all the handheld computing that has followed it, I wrote a column titled “Technology Advances, Privacy Declines.” That is basically the bottom line on privacy in the Shift Age and the 21st Century. Smartphones, tablets, browsers, video surveillance cameras everywhere, ATMs and all forms of digital records and communications that we so embrace… these are all eliminating privacy as it has been defined for centuries.
Two Realities of the Shift Age
One of the defining characteristics of the Shift Age is the fact that we all now have two realities that we have to manage, two realities that we live in: the physical reality and the screen reality. For the last seven years, I have been framing this concept as one of the ways we must look at our lives and what is going on around us. It was not until the cell phone ubiquity of the last few years – 5.7 billion cell phone users and 7.1 billion humans – that the screen reality has become as “real” to us as our physical reality. What happens in our screen realities can be as compelling as what happens in our physical reality. We sit, walk, work and (unfortunately) drive in a physical reality always connected to our screen reality. We have all seen people walking down the street, largely oblivious to their physical reality as they are absorbed in their screen reality.
The physical reality is based upon atoms, and the screen reality is based upon digits. This is why the screen reality is morphing much more quickly than the physical reality. The cutting edge of human evolution is now the screen reality. What is happening there moves to the physical reality.
Now that we are years into the Shift Age, complete with cell phone ubiquity and ever-faster internet connections, we are seeing how the screen reality is changing physical reality. The collapse of Borders and the closings of numerous big box stores across America can largely be attributed to Amazon and other online retailers. The business models, the language and the metaphors of the screen reality are affecting and changing the physical reality. That will continue.
PRISM exists in and because of the screen reality. PRISM takes advantage of our need for convenience, reliance upon and obsession with this digital reality. As technology increases, privacy declines. That is why those who want privacy and at least some independence from surveillance move “off the grid.” We will take a look at the larger issues of government and citizen privacy in a democracy in the next column, as they need to be aired and understood. There are reasons to be irate, but not surprised.
If you fully utilize the dynamic efficiencies and convenience of your screen reality, and if you choose to share your personal information on it, you are leaving the world of privacy.