How we love novelty and being the first to find it! Shiny next big things are the siren song of the tech industry, specifically, but all human nature generally. Our hearts and minds have evolved to prize novelty… even when it’s a misguided distraction.
We value the next big thing over the ongoing, familiar, steady action it might or might not enable. We run after productivity apps and, in the run, waste time and creativity and productivity itself. Our heads turn when new people enter the room, and we lose pace with the deep conversation in which we were immersed just moments ago. The novelty of new technology distracts us from pressing issues, issues of grave importance to both ourselves and broader society.
Maybe it’s rude, maybe it’s FOMO, but it’s also human nature we’ve evolved to stay safe. Australopithecus evolved to walk upright in part so that we could scan the horizon for new, incoming predators. Today, we scan for new people at the party as much as we scroll through Twitter for the breaking news and shiny new thing. But isn’t it time we focused on the social issues that threaten just how well we can convene around and collaborate on new tools and opportunities?
Can a conference retrain our focus?
South by Southwest Interactive is a a fertile hunting ground for magpies attuned to that sheen. As most reviews noted this week, SXSW is where Twitter first got big in 2007. “Breakout mobile app” Foursquare launched there in 2009. While 2014 featured no hot new app that attracted the attention of marketing and technology early adopters, literally thousands of people mounted the stage to hurl their big ideas into the audience. And amid those promises of Better Living Through Technology, nothing stood out as the next big thing.
No app was the next big thing. But 2014 was the year that SXSW solidly focused attendees’ attention on long-running challenges for the culture in which our apps, organizations, and theories must live. To advance new processes and business models, we cannot ignore issues like oversight, privacy, and security. SXSWi 2014 gave those challenges a big stage, literally and figuratively. Overflowing halls and simulcasts rooms testified to how attendees valued the conversation.
With several thousand people watching and livetweeting interviews with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, blogger Glenn Greenwald, and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, SXSW drew attention to the challenges of protecting private spaces for creation and collaboration against both public and private scrutiny. Their participation was not without debate. Congressman Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, wrote an open letter to the organizers of SXSW asking that they not give Snowden a platform from which to advance his perspectives.
But as Ben Wizner, Snowden’s fellow panelist and legal adviser, noted, private citizens have already begun to benefit from the information Snowden released. “Since Ed Snowden, we are actually seeing reinvigorated oversight,” he commented. “It is the oversight that the Constitution had in mind, but sometimes it needs dusting off. And Ed has been the broom.”
Panelist Chris Soghoian, principal technologist of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, echoed Wizner with a nod to the private sector. “Without Ed’s disclosures, many of the tech companies would not have improved their security either at all or at the rate that they did.” He noted how Snowden’s disclosures shined a harsh spotlight on the loose data security—and careless government compliance—of companies including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and Apple, all of whom scrambled to improve or finally implement encryption. They implemented technology to bring the reality of privacy more in line with their users’ perceptions and expectations of privacy, assumptions that are a key differentiator to communication in America.
“Fundamentally, privacy is about having control over how information flows,” explained ethnographic researcher danah boyd in her 2010 SXSW keynote. She spoke about how adolescents and, increasingly, adults, look to online channels to exercise freedom of assembly and association, rights guaranteed in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The same laws that underwrite teens’ freedom to gather and discuss school policy in online chatrooms also allow competitors to collaborate on new technology, even across national boundaries, without government surveillance. As Wizner pointed out, that freedom was under attack until Snowden drew attention to the many ways government was monitoring communication.
Snowden concluded the panel drawing attention not to the First Amendment, but to the Fourth, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.
“The interpretation had been changed from ‘no unreasonable search and seizure’ to ‘any seizure is fine, but don’t search it,'” he commented. That’s a call for greater oversight of both who can access our data as well as what they can do with it, even in aggregate. “Data in aggregate” is the common way we counter fears over invasions of personal privacy, but as Snowden reminded listeners, without oversight we cannot guarantee security even en masse.
Why does this matter?
Issues of privacy, security, surveillance, and oversight are not new. But in many parts of the world, privilege and economics let technologists ignore them or, worse, disregard issues of personal privacy among a minority in favor of the desires of the majority. That majority may see value in gathering or exposing data without regard to its security or safekeeping.
“No matter how many times a privileged straight white male technology executive pronounces the death of privacy, privacy is not dead,” argued danah boyd in her keynote. “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.” She went on to call out the now-shuttered Google Buzz, which launched with much fanfare and default settings to reveal users’ age, gender, and location.
“As technologists, it’s easy to assume that optimizing a situation is always best,” she said wryly. Profiles in Google Buzz were optimized for easy publicity, not easy privacy. The growing network valued easy sharing and immediate connection, prepopulating default friend lists and letting users opt out rather than opt in.
As boyd and other researchers point out, the larger issues around privacy and security go beyond liberties Snowden has most recently highlighted. While freedom of association and protections from unreasonable search and seizure are constitutionally guaranteed rights, the Fourth Amendment also lays the groundwork for “the reasonable expectation of privacy” (Katz v. United States, 1967). The Fourteenth Amendment expounds on privacy with the Due Process Clause: the government is prohibited from depriving citizens of life, liberty, and property without legislative authorization.
These amendments neatly sidestep the issue of judgement many skeptics raise in the face of privacy concerns: why should you worry about privacy if you have nothing to hide? That’s the question Google CEO Eric Schmidt raised when researchers like danah boyd questioned the company’s lax approach to oversight and the tradeoff between convenience and security inherent in Google Buzz. But as Snowden’s leaks of government surveillance revealed, the “nothing to hide” argument falls apart in the face of scrutiny. The act of collecting data on an individual can draw increased and undue suspicion to an individual, while the government, watchdog groups, or private organizations can use “guilt by association” to defame or slander an individual.
Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, addressed the United Nations after learning that she had been the subject of NSA surveillance. She spoke about the greatest, most personal danger we should all fear—whether we’ve got something to hide or not. “In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy,” she said. It is in our most private, unwatched spaces that we are most free to express, create, and collaborate, without editing. Privacy offers the freedom to simply be ourselves in the midst of a community, country, or crowd.
As the nearly 30,000 attendees at this year’s SXSW can surely attest, that may be the most rare and priceless freedom of all.