The Internet as a Town

Maybe I’ve been looking at this all wrong. Could it be that the metaphor we should be looking at this as is more like a town than our papers?

If I walk down the street and go into a store there is no assumption of privacy. Even in the store, there is no assumption that no one will know what I’m looking for. People can see me walk into the store, where I go in the store, and they can look in the cart and see what I’m buying. The cashier sees what I buy and if I use a card, so does the bank.

That’s different than going to the bank or getting mail from a postoffice box. Yes, people can know I went there and how long I were there, but there is a reasonable assumption of privacy over the details, such as what mail I sent or received or how much is in my bank account.

In town, it’s hypothetical unless you have a PI following you or you’re a celebrity. Generally people who would recognize you don’t see you out and about. Online it’s different. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and who knows who else are always watching, always taking notes, and always developing psychological profiles so they can target their goods, services, or advertising at you.

If we combine the two ideas we have what looks a lot like a semi-dystopian sci fi or a small town. Yeah, it’s that creepy. Yes, those quaint small towns that people yearn for in the name of safety and privacy are the places where everyone gossips and everyone knows everyone’s business.

There assumption of privacy is really a recent concept created at least in part by the inherent anonymity of big cities. The assumption then was naturally that if you have privacy in a city of millions, shouldn’t you have more on an web of billions?

What we need to do is figure out how we define privacy in the digital age, what counts as your property and your papers. The old paradigms and metaphors don’t apply and our governments don’t have the understanding or political will to address it, and even if they did, technology changes faster than the show wheels off legislation and regulation.

I think online security is still far more important than privacy and that there are things that you should have assumption of privacy over, such as banking and private communication. We don’t need to wear to tinfoil hats, but we should think about what we share with whom.