Some 2018 Predictions

wrote a prediction a couple weeks ago for Nieman Lab, and it was general and media literacy focused. But here’s some more mundane, somewhat U.S.-centric predictions:

I don’t know what to do about this last problem. It’s knotty. I’m not the person to write about how we prepare as a society for this, but I wish someone would.

Larger Trends

Looking at these predictions, which I typed just now, stream-of-consciousness style, I’m struck by the two social vulnerabilities they exploit.

Industrialization of conversation. We have not come to terms with how the digitalization of conversation allows for its industrialization. And how it’s industrialization allows for manipulation that is more massive and immediate than what we’ve previously seen in the conversational space. We need to develop tools and norms to protect conversation from industrialization. And we desperately need to stop conceptualizing the discourse space on the web as a bunch of individual actors expressing an emergent will.

The erosion of the right to privacy. The modern expectation of privacy, if I recall correctly, was a result of both urbanization and literate culture. In a small tribe you don’t have much privacy, but on the other hand everyone knows you and has the context to evaluate new information about you. In a rural setting, most of what you do is relatively undiscoverable by others, unless someone involved talks. But in towns and cities people’s actions are both discoverable and shorn of context,  and written communication is similarly stripped of its setting and intended interlocutors, so new norms and laws were needed.

(Economics played a part here of course as well — consider the way that works of Rembrandt and others portray homes of the rising middle class as quiet and meticulously organized private spaces apart from the bustle of the street.)

Internet giants such as Google and Facebook have labelled privacy as a historical anomaly. And it’s true that the modern conception of privacy seems to emerge with the development of the modern middle class. But there are some things to note here.

The first is that privacy is necessitated by a move to literate culture. The nature of verbal communication is that it is by its very nature private, only available to those at a specific time and place. Written communication makes possible the broad dissemination of messages intended for different audiences and contexts, and so a notion of informational privacy has to develop. The mailman doesn’t get to read my mail, and has never had the right to do that, from the invention of mailmen. This is because the notion of mail gives rise to new notions of mail privacy. Mail doesn’t make privacy obsolete — the norms and the tech co-develop.

Looked at this way the move from literate to digital culture should not reduce the amount of privacy available to people, but increase the realms where the concept is applied. Our literate and productively bureaucratic culture could not have developed without the expansion of privacy norms around written communication. My Dad worked for Digital Equipment Corporation for many years, an IBM-like mid-20th century creation that functioned on memos and notes and written analysis. Had it been legal and acceptable for any person to go out and sell internal memos to other companies, or to publish employee assessments in the local paper, very little work could have been done on paper, and organizations like IBM and Digital simply would have been impossible to run. They would have collapsed. The invention of the written memo occasions new norms about the privacy of the written memo.

The move to digital communication should, likewise, prompt new and more restrictive norms around privacy.   Otherwise our digitally enabled culture will collapse, completely unworkable. But what’s different this time is the business model of our modern system involves the mailman reading our mail, so powerful interests have spent a lot of time arguing that rather than prompt new notions of privacy, technology undoes privacy. This is unbelievably stupid and technocentric. The invention of sexting, for example, doesn’t “undo” privacy — it argues for an expansion of the concept. The use of email doesn’t mean that everyone’s annual reviews will now be a matter of public record, or that we now all have a right to read the personal work squabbles of others — it means we need to develop new norms and laws and security expectations about email.

I’m sure that the powers that be in Silicon Valley believe in “the end of privacy”, just like they believe in technocratic meritocracy. The most attractive thing for any programmer to believe is that new technologies will render the messiness of social relations obsolete. But this idea, that privacy is antiquated, will lead to institutional and organizational collapse on a massive scale, which is why a transparency organization like Wikileaks is the favorite tool of dictators.

Additionally, unless privacy concerns are addressed, we will end up reversing the advances of the literate culture which allowed broad participation in discourse and decision-making. Keep in mind that while people become increasingly wary of speaking frankly in email, text, and chat rooms because of the lack of technical security and ephemerality people with face-to-face access to power will be able to speak freely. It’s easy to mock bureaucratic culture with its emails, and memos, and endless reply-to-alls. But when the only way to influence the direction of the company reverts to being seated in a chair across from the CEO we will miss it.

That’s a long point one on privacy. But let me add point two. The invention of an intensely internal and personal private life is one of the great gifts of modernity to humanity. I love Shakespeare, but read a soliloquy of Shakespeare’s next to Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey. Reflecting on seeing a place he has not seen for a long time, Wordsworth writes:

 These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

People focus on Wordsworth’s treatment of nature, which is remarkable in itself. But the most striking thing to me about the poem has always been how recognizable the psychology is here compared to Shakespeare. And a piece of that is the way in which the narrator’s personal and private life provides sustenance even as the “din of towns and cities” drains him. The way in which even his mental experience of those “lonely rooms” is intensely and unapologetically personal. The obsession with the psychological reality of mental imagery. You see this same development with the novels of the Brontës and Jane Austen, and in portraiture. Matisse’s Woman Reading, for example, sits with her back to us, the room of hers small and unkempt, but she is transported via reading into a different world via the book she reads.

I’ve spent too many words here already on this post, so I’ll pursue this another time. It’s difficult to explain. But the notion of privacy is more than just social and organizational lubricant — over the past 500 years or so we’ve built it deep into the notion of what it means to be human, and removing it dehumanizes us.