The paradox of the sauna

On Wednesday at Re:Publica, Jeff Jarvis gave a talk on the German Paradox, a concept he introduced on his blog, BuzzMachine. A blog post that journalist Jean-Marc Manach already commented (for those of you who read French). Looking at Jeff Jarvis’ experience is interesting: by talking publicly about his prostate cancer on his blog, he got a lot of valuable information that helped him make important choices. As a result, he argues that we don’t see all the benefits of “publicness.”

Our culture and our social norms have trained us to be secret about our private life. For Jeff Jarvis, this is stronger in Germany than in the US. There is a cultural aspect of privacy. But is it really a good thing? Maybe we talk about privacy too much, and the issue is elsewhere. Furthermore, generations don’t all share the same perception of what privacy is. Jean-Marc Manach has described the differences in his article Privacy, a Problem for old fools? (in French).

And Privacy is indeed full of paradoxes. I see at least two of them:

  • I have been filmed and taken into pictures by my parents, by my family and then by my friends, since even before I was born. You can find a video, somewhere in my house, of an echography of me, my little brother and my little sister. With digital cameras, people now take pictures of everything and they take thousands of pictures. And people share them and show them to other friends or relatives. Then, why are so many people bothered when we, young people, share the pictures of ourselves with our friends?
  • However, among my own generation, there is this paradox of privacy, that we are willing to share more content, with more people. And yet, every time something is happening online (Facebook changes some settings, Google Buzz launches, etc) we have tons of people claiming that peoples’ privacy is being violated.

What’s important if one wants to understand what’s happening here, is to ask the appropriate questions. Who is sharing with whom? What kind of tools (and tools implies control)? Who is benefiting from these social practices, and who would benefit from their changes?

Every once in a while, we have some people claiming that privacy is dead, it does not make sense anymore. Ethnologist and sociologist Danah Boyd has an excellent overview of the situation (emphasis is mine):

No matter how many times a privileged straight white male technology executive pronounces the death of privacy, Privacy Is Not Dead. People of all ages care deeply about privacy. And they care just as much about privacy online as they do offline. But what privacy means may not be what you think.

Fundamentally, privacy is about having control over how information flows. It’s about being able to understand the social setting in order to behave appropriately. To do so, people must trust their interpretation of the context, including the people in the room and the architecture that defines the setting. When they feel as though control has been taken away from them or when they lack the control they need to do the right thing, they scream privacy foul.

On the other hand, there are also people who are fundamentally taking the opposite direction and always complain about anything like it is a huge scandal and that people’s privacy is violated at least as much as in Stasi’s Germany. Examples: Google Street View would be a big violation of privacy. Or body scanners in airports would be a violation of privacy (although I am not saying it is a good thing) Also, sometimes cultural differences make situations even stranger: e.g. in saunas in Germany, people have no problem showing their “private” parts–which is not the case in the US.

Anyway, this category of privacy-alarmists have been described by The Tech Liberation Front (emphasis is mine):

I think that it’s clear there is such a thing as a “privacy paternalist”—and there are not a few among folks I consider allies on other issues. They’re the ones who are convinced that anyone who values privacy less highly than they do must be confused or irrational. A genuine privacy paternalist will say that even if almost everyone understands that Amazon keeps track of their purchases to make useful recommendations, this collection must be prohibited because they’re not thinking clearly about what this really means and may someday regret it.

There’s actually a variant on this view that I won’t go into at length, but which I don’t think should be classed as strictly paternalist. Call this the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” view of privacy. On this account, there are systemic consequences to information sharing, such that we each get some benefit from participating in certain systems of disclosure, but would all be better off if nobody did.

So in all that, the question that we must ask is not so much about privacy, but about publicity. And in this matter, I am grateful for the direction Jeff Jarvis have taken in his talk at Re:Publica: the benefits of publicness (and in the meantime, I would like the discussions on Privacy to focus really on privacy problems–but that’s for another blog post).

Taking his American view of Germany, Jeff Jarvis then make this interesting finding (if someone have sources and figures for that, please drop me an email): Why are there so few bloggers in Germany compared to the US? To what someone answered: “We lack a culture of sharing knowledge… and we mistrust the fools giving it away for free.”

That’s where the benefits of publicness rely: sharing knowledge and, indeed giving it away for free. But what does “free” mean here? I would like to think of Free as in Freedom, and by that I mean: give your knowledge and give others the rights to share it freely, like we do with software. However, some may think of free as in gratis. Which leads to the question of the price of privacy, or its costs (see Privacy is a currency). What’s important here is where the control is and who has it.

Unfortunately, today little control is given to the users, and most of it is centralized by Web services like Facebook, or Google’s. But Jeff Jarvis makes no mention of that.

Let’s get more focused on the value of publicness. We should not act like privacy paternalists. As he puts it, public should be the rule, private should be the exception. Danah Boyd had an interesting piece on the same logics: Public by default, Private when necessary. And similarly, I came up with the same advice when talking about Facebook, that it is silly to put everything “as private” but that people should accept the rules of sharing and go more public.

The benefits are interesting, and the example Jeff Jarvis took, Flickr, is indeed a great example. By publishing on Flickr, an online community emerged where people could enjoy more pictures, and share knowledge on photographs, create groups, edit tags, making collaborative rankings and tidying, which now makes Flickr a very wide database of pictures (sometimes in creative commons). And so he concludes that, on the Internet, we should be like Germans in saunas and stop acting like Americans in saunas → The internet as a big global sauna where everyone would be naked and showing his/here private parts.

Wait a minute… Have I missed something here? Is there a part of the picture I don’t see?

I agree on the benefits of publicness, and the value of publicity. But it doesn’t mean that privacy and keeping things private is now meaningless. Because there are also the benefits of privateness and the value of privacy, in terms of social freedom and personal autonomy. And we have to keep that possible, and in some areas, we have to keep away publicity.

Follow Jeff Jarvis’ argument. Then, why wouldn’t I make my emails public? Why do I keep using emails anyway? I should just simply post Facebook messages! Is the reason why I am sending private emails that I have something to hide?  No! But it doesn’t mean that I should make that public. Why? Because there is still a private sphere I want to protect. Here, the benefits of privateness overcome the benefits of publicness. Indeed, in a worldwide sauna Internet, everyone with a towel would be suspicious. And social pressure would be too high!

So how do we make sure that we don’t fall into this trap? How do we draw the line between the public sphere–which is where the benefits of publicness are more valuable than the benefits of privateness, and the private sphere, within which the benefits of privateness are more important than the benefits of publicness?

We have to make sure that the answer comes from the right people, because the benefits are not the same for everyone! For Facebook and Google, the benefits of publicness will always overcome the benefits of privateness, because they can’t monetize and advertize what is kept secret or private! But we have to make sure that people for whom the benefits of privateness are more valuable do not have too much power to decide on our private/public sphere either: because that is censorship.

I want to stay free to choose whether something should be public or kept private, and that choice must be protected. For that, control is essential, and privacy must be granular, not binary. But before that, to understand what is the better architecture of control, in which Free Software and the Neutral and Free Internet have a huge role. We have to give people back the power and the responsibility to decide where to draw the line between public and private. And for that, we need to make the distinction between communication, sharing, publishing.