Privacy

Posted on August 7, 2010

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Imagine for a second that a device existed that is implanted into people’s heads and that then lets people communicate directly – from brain to brain and without words being spoken or written.

One problem with such a device that comes immediately to mind: people might not be able to control what thoughts their connections can see or read. This scenario would be every privacy advocate’s nightmare. We would surely ask for some kind of “privacy-switch” in such a device, so we could be sure that others would not be able to read our thoughts when we don’t want them to.

While such implants may be a thing of the future, to a lesser extent we are already facing the same problem. Twitter, facebook etc. tempt us to constantly share our thoughts; and many seem to be tempted to an extent that appears involuntary.  The thoughts we get to read are raw and unpolished. Some are of great quality – I am happy to be exposed to the thoughts of smart people like @nntaleb and @BrianNorgard. Some are of less quality. But they are all are very spontaneous and they often seem quite close to what we might find if we read the recordings of the aforementioned in-brain device. I have in my last post already laid out how these spontaneous thoughts could be a great source of data for artificial intelligence.

That such raw thoughts are being publicized is absolutely new in the history of mankind. The phenomenon has lead to lots of commentary from the traditional press — that institutions that has traditionally acted as a filter between pure thought and publicized reasoning. And as far as I can tell, critical comments often attack the phenomenon from a privacy perspective.  The aforementioned “privacy advocates” are being called to action.  The attitude of young people in this regard is being described as irresponsible. “What if future employers stumble upon those thoughts?” is typically asked.

But let’s try to put this in a broader perspective, shall we? Let’s ponder for a moment what all this might mean for the development of humanity, if you will.

These new technologies without doubt allow communication and expression among people around the world to a never-seen extent.  Through Twitter I am currently able to read the raw thoughts of a teenager in Westchester as well as those of a cop in the streets of Bed-Stuy. I am able to read the thoughts of Palestinian youth and those of drafted Israeli soldiers. It is really as if I could look directly into the brains of people around the world that I have never met and who would never be heard otherwise.

In a sense, our latest communication devices offer the theoretical ability to  unite humanity into one big intelligent organism. Human beings themselves are constantly internally conflicted. Desires and wishes often conflict on the individual level. Our consciousness then reigns in these various desires and decides how to behave. Modern communication through Twitter and similar devices brings to light conflicting desires and wishes of humanity as a whole. Hundreds of millions of people send their thoughts out there, unfiltered. And the organism called humanity then has to decide what impulses to follow. The more unhindered this communication flows, the better the left brain and the right brain of humanity can connect.

I will present the United Arab Emirates’, Saudi Arabia’s and, unfortunately also India’s recent attempts to forbid instant blackberry communication as Exhibit A.  Censorship is of course nothing new. People exchanging their thoughts and expressing their opinions freely has always been perceived by rulers as  a danger. (We put some protection against censorship in our constitution not because freedom of expression is a self-evident right (which it is), but because its restriction was understood as a self-evident desire of all rulers.)

And I would like to present the prevalent concerns about privacy as Exhibit B. Privacy is essential only if there is some “danger” out there, something that, upon learning about your thoughts, could cause you harm. The fact that expressing yourself is perceived as potentially dangerous is in itself a sign of frictions in our society. These frictions should be addressed instead of avoided in the name of privacy.

Thinking about it this way, free, constant and unfiltered expression of  thought should be seen as a good thing.  Latest technology offers humanity a chance to grow together and to work as one big organism on the issues faced by all people. Just like it is healthy for an individual to become aware of his or her conflicting desires and motivations, so is it cleansing for humanity itself to put conflicting attitudes, opinions and  interests out on the table.  By expressing yourself publicly on twitter, facebook etc. you are doing nothing less than improving the human race as a whole.

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