How technology redefines norms

By Felix Salmon
May 18, 2013
Jeff Jarvis reprints the clip above, in an article dismissing the privacy concerns surrounding Google Glass.

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Jeff Jarvis reprints the clip above, in an article dismissing the privacy concerns surrounding Google Glass. The Victorian attitudes of Newport’s cottagers, he clearly implies, were misguided and misplaced. “Rest assured,” he writes. “ I will ask you whether it’s OK to take a picture of you in private.”

The key words, here — words which weren’t even part of the cottagers’ vocabulary — are “in private”. We now live in a world where we have public lives and private lives — and for over a century now, since roughly the point at which the above article appeared, the portion of our lives considered “public” has been expanding, while the portion of our lives we can consider “private” has been contracting. What’s more, Jarvis himself is a prominent proponent of the idea that we should maximize the speed at which we move our lives into the public realm; he also equates a desire for privacy with being “scared of the public” .

Never before have we faced so many opportunities to turn the formerly-private into the newly-public. As those opportunities arise, many people adopt them, and turn “public” into the new norm for such activities. Eventually, the norms become societally entrenched, to the point at which it is now utterly unobjectionable for those who once would have been labeled “kodak fiends” to take photographs outside a Newport tennis tournament.

My point here is that technology has a tendency to create its own norms. The classic example is the automobile — a technology which kills more than 30,000 Americans every year. From the 1930s through the 1990s, societal norms about who roads belonged to, and what people should do on them, were turned on their head thanks to the new technology. The dangerous new activity allowed by the new technology became the privileged norm, to the point at which just about all other road-based activity — and roads have been around for thousands of years, remember, since long before the automobile — essentially ceased to exist. Eventually, we reached the point at which elected representatives were happy saying that if a bicyclist gets killed by a car, it’s the bicyclist’s fault for being on the road in the first place.

If Google Glass — and wearable computing more generally — takes off and fulfills its potential, it will change society’s norms about what is public and what is private. It is therefore entirely rational, whatever you think of the set of norms we have right now, to assume that they will end up moving towards something more well disposed towards the new technology.

Jeff Jarvis will welcome that move, and can come up with dozens of reasons why it would be a good thing rather than a bad thing. “There’s no need to panic,” he writes. “We’ll figure it out, just as we have with many technologies—from camera to cameraphone—that came before.” But let’s be clear here about how much weight is carried by that “we’ll figure it out”. Realistically, “figuring it out” means, in large part, changing norms: irrevocably moving the line between what is private and what is public. That might be a good thing, it might be a bad thing. But if you like the norms we have right now — or if you think they’ve already gone too far in terms of robbing individuals of their privacy — then you have every reason to worry about what the onset of wearable computing might portend.

Update: Noah Brier points me to a quote from Daniel Mendelsohn, who goes back further still than the Victorians:

I am amused by the fact our word idiot comes from the Greek word idiotes, which means a private person. It’s from the word idios, which means private as opposed to public. So the Athenians, or the Greeks in general who had such a highly developed sense of the radical distinction between what went on in public and what went on in private, thought that a person that brought his private life into public spaces, who confused public and private, was an idiote, was an idiot. Of course, now everybody does this. We are in a culture of idiots in the Greek sense.


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I really don’t think the norms are changing at all. What’s actually changing here, is HOW we take pictures and videos. Glass and its ilk are no less invasive than the smartphone camera, a GoPro mounted on your helmet or Street View.

What might freak out people, is face-recognition (that’s not to say that it’s currently built into Glass). But you should recognize that face-recognition will be coming to every one of those security cameras in the public and private realms. Right now, Androids have the capability to unlock phones via face-recognition, though I’m sure most people are not aware of it.

If people are upset about the pervasiveness of this capability, then Congress should step up and make it clear that such software shall be limited to those in your contacts (Google, iOS, FB, Twitter, etc), or for the purpose of personal security (home security, device security, etc).

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive

It would generally be a mistake to regulate technology. We already regulate behavior. And we cannot anticipate all the uses, good and bad, of a technology.
The same with norms. There’s nothing necessarily different, as — I feel silly with this attribution — GRRR points about above, between taking a picture with a camera or Glass except Glass is new and thus various media worrywarts sound alarms about it.
I was appalled with Nick Bilton’s blog post in The Times worrying that people would use Glass to take pictures of his junk in the men’s room. They had that capability before. They had not good reason to before. They certainly have no good reason to now. If anyone tried with any technology, I can predict what will happen (and the media trend stories that will then be extrapolated from that event).
I don’t dismiss the concerns of the good ladies and gentlemen of Newport, Felix. I point out that in the interim, we did indeed figure it out. We do. Society does. To imagine that we cannot figure it out or that we’ll do a bad job of it is instead rather dismissive of all of us today, wouldn’t you say?

Posted by JeffJarvis | Report as abusive

I point you, Felix, and Noah Brier to Hanah Arendt in The Human Condition: “A man who lived only a private life, who like a slave was not permitted to enter the public realm, or like the barbarian had not chosen to establish such a realm, was not fully human.”
Also to Patricia Meyer Spacks in Privacy: Conceling the Eighteenth Century Self: “The word privacy derives from a Latin word meaning deprived; deprived of public office; in other words, cut off from the full and appropriate functioning of a man.”
And to Lawrence Friedman in Guarding Life’s Secrets: “Privacy is a modern invention. Medieval people had no concept of privacy. They also had no actual privacy. Nobody was ever alone. No ordinary person had private space. Houses were tiny and crowded. Everyone was embedded in a face-to-face community. Privacy, as idea and reality, is the creation of modern bourgeois society.”

Posted by JeffJarvis | Report as abusive

I’m surprised that Jeff Jarvis seems oblivious to an essential difference between Glass and the mere image capture devices that went before, including phone cameras. It’s the information! With Glass, Google converts anonymous image data into Personal Information, by the terabyte. The central and radical privacy problem with Glass is that a huge infomopoly will likely use it to monitor what we’re doing, when and where, and with whom we’re doing it. Google has famously little self restraint in how it uses the information it gathers from public. Look at the way it merged all its information silos, allowing itself to re-purpose any information collected for any purpose. And think about the way its Street View cars gathered the personal information in Wi-Fi transmissions. Sure, they denied that was deliberate, blaming an overly zealous programmer for leaving some test code in the production software. But what sort of company culture is so tone deaf to privacy that their engineers can think it’s okay to eavesdrop on private networks without consent? Just because they can?
Google Glass is to the Kodak Box Brownie as the motorcar is to the horse. The rules and mores of old really are broken by these sorts of new technologies, and to label critics as phobic worry-worts is pretty vapid.

Posted by Steve_Lockstep | Report as abusive

I tend to agree with Mr. Jarvis. For the vast time of human existence, the overwhelming majority of it was without privacy. Privacy however can be confused with “annoynimity” – a feature of the new, novel organization of people into cities, that can hide and disguise the “real” person. This can be a two edged sword.

For a long time, privacy extended and enlarged freedom – the freedom to be gay, to be sexually adventuresome, to be agnostic, to be pro 2nd amendment in Massachusetts, to be pro gun control in Alabama, to be out of the “mainstream.” In that sense, privacy is an important check on the majoritarian oppression and a feature that expands freedom.

But so much of the danger of modern life is hidden predation, as opposed to seeing the lion on the Savannah, is watching out for the predatory criminal or fraudster. Privacy is an enable of lying. Indeed, with laws so convoluted and complex, one is far more able to judge the value of legislation more by who is surreptiously supporting it than by a straightforward reading of the bill. Making politicians lives substantially less private (every meeting a politician has with a verbatim transcript) would make the reason for the opaque wording of our laws very transparent.
So the question always has to be: Who gets privacy and why?

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