Saturday, March 8, 2014

Data Absolutists and the Limits of Privacy

Neil Seeman and Sabrina Tang have blogged about 'Data Absolutists' who believe in the liberation of public data; data to be reviewed by citizen researchers and fed back to "the" public to moderate government services and promote openness.

But if more open data, as promised in the OGP (Open Government Partnership) is such a great thing then what are the limits to online privacy ?   In discussing the utility and costs of information privacy, we could perhaps learn something about where it lives, and where it should live, in our societal machine.

This is an old article (from last year):.

 [NY Judge Richard] Posner likened privacy to a "superior good," one that is not something that is deeply ingrained in human nature, but rather a luxury.

The thrust of the argument is that privacy is a double edged sword because it essentially means concealment. Posner argues that privacy is simply protection to conceal that which we do not want others to know, like arrests, illnesses, etc. In his eyes, it's the right to present the most polished version of ourselves. He asks whether that is a social luxury we are willing to forgo in order to preserve something greater, like security.
So we have an idea here of privacy as an updated form of 'hiding'.  I like that association because it places the social and technical construct of privacy as one of McLuhan's extensions of man - in this case, an extension of our basic social selves.  That means that online privacy serves to address our human feelings: of fear, of modesty, of curiosity for example.   

Now we're in the age where your public person is define through your online transactions and behaviors - public and private.  There is still a public and private sphere, that you constantly trade and share with service providers such as Google and Facebook, much as you check your right to privacy when you walk in public, or through a private space owned by someone else.

The opportunities for engaging in public discussion for collective benefit in the same way are immense, as well as from benefiting from public online behaviors but we will need to develop our ideas of privacy a little more and especially recognize that online personas are a certain type of extension of our real selves. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Social Dialogue and Designing for Choice

Ok, everyone.  I'm still looking for ideas on finding some wisdom.  Getting some wise thoughts, or even better a wise person that we can all sit down and listen to..  ( Diogenes said it takes a wise man to find a wise man, but didn't talk about the wisdom of me, ie. the guy who's looking for the wise man to find the wise man. )

When I fall short in my web walk for wisdom, I end up on and today's article reviews 'legibility':

The article talks about the failure of sweeping authoritarian plans to improve peoples' lives - which is described by James C. Scott in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,:

The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion.  Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft. The pre-modern state was, in many crucial respects, particularly blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed “map” of its terrain and its people.

It's pretty clear what he's describing but it seems to me, though, that there needs to be a state of readiness for legibility to be undertaken.  Even for public choices to be designed, there need to be some options being discussed.  If you want to pave the cow paths, then there have to be cow paths to being with.

If there is a need for some direction, but we don't have even paths yet - don't we need to have somebody architect those choices for us ?  To plan a space for discussions to occur ?  
Maybe our directions will be clearer once people start talking about the failures in dialogue - lack of public fora, no tools to build consensus, mass one-to-many communication rather than public discussion.  And to talk in a progressive and constructive way requires design - not the authoritative design that Scott describes, but design that iterates on and enhances humans' natural social and problem-solving needs.

There are examples, after all, where social tools were designed as such - I'm thinking of money as an example here.

I think the question of choice architecture is an interesting one, but in terms of public discussion, we don't even have a path or an open square today, far from a home.