Because we can: comments from a lecture

The weekend and FSCONS is now over. This year my presentation was the last talk of the final session. It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it?

My presentation was on the topic of privacy and raised the question of whether it is possible to maintain ones privacy in the world of extreme technology dependencies and broad social technology adoption. The answer is, dependably & depressingly, negative.

The talk was entitled Off the Grid: is anonymity possible? And focused on different forms of surveillance that are in the hands of uncommon players today. This is not big brother society, this is not little brother society. What we have is a society were privacy is lost because our contacts inform their contacts of interesting details from our lives. These details are able to be spread further by my contacts contacts. Potentially reaching the ends of the Internet. Whether or not this happens does not depend on anything I control but the interestingness of the information.

To illustrate this I displayed this tweet:

Translation: Thing that can happen at #fscons: @Klang67 proclaims himself queen. A bit unclear over what.

This is a form of surveillance through acquaintances and therefore I have chosen to follow the French wording (surveillance is French for viewing from above) and called this connaivellance for the fascinating word connaissance or acquaintance. I find the French word more interesting than the English as its root connai is the word for knowledge. Therefore, the French connaissance (acquaintance) is someone who has knowledge of you. How very apt.

The next form of surveillance is the self-surveillance of the social media age where we tell the world of ourselves. Or as a professor I met earlier in the week protested, with absolute conviction: “Twitter? That’s only people telling each other what they had for breakfast!”

Another thing I find fascinating with social media is the way it shapes our communication. One part of this is the way in we move towards the extremes. Few people online drink coffee, read books, or listen to lectures… We all seem to read fantastic/terrible books, drink great or awful coffee and lectures are either inspiring or snooze fests. All this with a shower of smileys too.

Both this autoveillance (which I have written more about here) and this connaivellance filled much of my lecture. As the law fails to protect, and our acquaintances and ourselves enthusiastically push information the last lines of defense must be the attitudes and interests of the social media creators. What my lecture showed was that protecting us is not in their interest. Therefore we stand unprotected. The slides from my presentation:

This morning I came across a further example of surveillance which needs to be added to the list. The story comes from a Forbes article by Dave Pell, entitled Privacy Ends at Burger King. The short version of the story is that a man who heard a married couple argue at Burger King began live tweeting the event and added pictures and even video clips. He began his broadcasting with the tweet “I am listening to a marriage disintegrate at a table next to me in this restaurant. Aaron Sorkin couldn’t write this any better.”

Pell’s analysis:

In that Burger King, Andy Boyle thought he was listening to the disintegration of a couple’s marriage. He was really hearing the crumbling of his own ethics and self-restraint. We can’t stand by and let an alliance between technology and poor judgement disintegrate all decency, and turn every human exchange into another tawdry and destructive episode on a never-ending social media highlight reel.

This example provided an interesting additional example to my discussion on surveillance. For me, this example shows an additional reason why any attempts to control social media (legally, socially or technically) will fail. The desire of people to communicate the interestingness in their (and others) lives makes control a difficult affair.

FSCONS continued late into the night.

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