The future is an alien place

A snippet of a conversation between myself and a facebook friend, W. Big shout out to W, I like your work!

Emlyn (me): I wish you could make your own “personal google”, just searching things you had seen before, possibly including your own notes.

W: Do you want Google knowing everything you’ve seen before? (Your web browsing history)

Emlyn: Couldn’t care less, in fact. You should live now as though your every action is public. We are not in the transparent society yet, but when we are, the past will also be redredged and brought into the light, private and public.

W: Man, I hope you’re wrong about that. I know people are saying Mark Zuckerberg plans to open Facebook up. But think about this… I’m an atheist and everyone here knows it. Everyone at my company, though, is Christian. If my manager and co-workers can come in and read everything I’ve posted on FB, I’d be out of a job. Not instantly, but eventually — things like that affect how people perceive you, which eventually seeps into job performance reviews etc. Thinking about this further, it means religious economic segregation — Christians will work only for other Christians, atheists will work only for other atheists, etc.

And that’s just the stuff I post on FB. For the most part, I don’t post political stuff on FB because when it comes to politics I like to read stuff outside of the accepted left/right political spectrum in the US. If people had access to my complete browsing history, I could get in heaps of trouble. Actually now that I think about it, this means we are also headed for political economic segregation — Republicans will work only for other Republicans, Democrats will work only for other Democrats, people belonging to the lunatic fringe will work only for other members of the lunatic fringe — or be unemployed. Etc.

So when you say, “You should live now as though your every action is public.” — maybe for you it is easy to think only what you are supposed to think, and never question what you are told, but for me it is not so easy… i like to think for myself, to doubt, to question things, to follow evidence wherever it leads, even if to ideas that the PTB say are off-limits (usually because they want to cover up their own hypocrisy/corruption etc). But the consequence of thinking for yourself is that you can’t say what you really think any more. See http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html

The interesting thing about browser history is that the browser history is very revealing because it’s how a person gets non-mainstream ideas in the first place. A person can’t get non-mainstream ideas from the mass media (TV/radio/newspapers/maganizes/etc), at least in this country. So if a person knows their browsing history is being made public, it means they can’t browse to sites with non-mainstream ideas, which means they will self-censor and prevent themselves from being exposed to any non-mainstream ideas in the first place. So making browser history public has far-reaching consequences.

Emlyn: ” … So when you say, “You should live now as though your every action is public.” — maybe for you it is easy to think only what you are supposed to think, and never question what you are told … ”

Thanks for the vote of confidence W 🙂

I have some of the same troubles as you, we all do. In general, we segregate our social spheres, and bank on them staying separate. Work vs private spheres, friends vs family, intellectual-stuff vs everything else, there are consequences right now if they merge.

The only really sustainable answer I can see is to try to change my life by slowly merging all the spheres. In places it has definitely alienated people, but I can’t help that.

I see this as possibly the major social challenge of our generation. We clashed with the baby boomers largely I think over status and lifestyle – should you live for work, status, money, or should you focus on what you care about and damn the rest. But, our generation (and the boomers) is just beginning the mother of all clashes with the next ones coming up, over separation of social spheres. I don’t think the younger people believe in it (separation) at all.

If you look at younger people and their collisions between, say, their facebook antics and school, or online life and expectations from employers, you’ll see they’re always clashing with institutions run by older generations. They publish everything, and they expect that of each other. We see this and think “are you crazy? you can do these things, other people can even know, but if you publish, then it is part of the formal realm that we all know, and it can’t be ignored. Irresponsible!”

It comes down to this: We expect a private life and a public face (or faces). You hide the details of your real self, because how could you otherwise put your best foot forward? And, all our social institutions are geared to this. Resumes are expected to be somewhat inflated. Public figures can’t have any public flaws because it is expected they would be covering things up, and if there are visible problems or errors, then that must be the tip of an enormous iceberg! We have lots and lots of metrics for judging others, based on assuming this bias in presentation (think about it, the examples abound).

Life in the 21st century increasingly breaks our ability to sustain public faces. It’s happening to (and I would argue is destroying the very concept of) institutions – government, media, corporations, churches, military, education. And, it’s happening to us individually. The net is a knowledge ratchet, it discovers things and then they can never be undiscovered.

With social change so large, you’ve got to look to the people who are born into it and know nothing else, to see how to survive. Those rascally kids. And they don’t do public/private face, or at least do it a lot less. They publish much more, and they judge people not on their flaws, but by how open they are; do they publish, is there a lot of published material? In this world, a person without a published public data trail is probably hiding something, and is untrustworthy! Someone whose flaws are not visible are likely lying about something.

That’s where we have to move I think. There’s no choice. We can do it slowly, but you really need to start now. Just look at all the people in the 20th century caught out in retrospect by disclosure of something they did in previous cultural ages with different sets of rules (the people who perpetrated the Stolen Generations in Australia, or the catholic church’s abuses, or the abuses from institutions all over the world). We may look like that in retrospect, and the record we are creating now (including conspicuous holes) may be totally public in the future and be damning in a different cultural context, that might for instance not tolerate the idea of telling one person one thing, and telling another something else.

The future is an alien place. But, it might just be awesome to be an alien. I’m game to give it a try.

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The future is an alien place

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