The New Village: There is No Privacy in the Networked World

Pennsylvania "Dutch" Hex "Rosette"

Villages naturally have very little privacy. To guard against the results (“bad luck”) that the eyes of the Other (neighbors) might bring, inhabitants might use all kinds of methods–including some that are supernatural.  For instance, in pre-1997 Bhutanese villages (e.g. before TV was allowed and other cultures flooded in) inhabitants painted symbols on their homes to ward off ill-fortune.  If you visit rural areas today, you’ll notice among these house paintings are phalluses, painted by doors, hung from strings from the roof as if they were windchimes or placed like gargoyles on the eaves.   This was done rather like the hex signs of the Pennsylvania “Dutch,” but not for what many guess would be the obvious reason, fertility.  No, the Bhutanese were not insuring the abundance of their fields and families with these phalluses.  They painted these symbols to ward off gossip and what we might call the evil eye.  Gossip and the evil eye, which results from gossip because if you are trying to accomplish something, and people conceptualize and talk about it too much, that thing you are trying to do might not turn out so well.

Phallus on Bhutanese home

I emphasize “gossip” because I have heard from people I’ve known who have actually lived in villages (American, Tibetan, Sherpa, or Bhutanese) a main suffering they’ve experienced is the same as one of the advantages.  That is, there is not that much privacy.  You are not anonymous.  Having the strength of a village network is useful because people can help you, look after your kids, catch your cow and bring it back, etc.  On the other hand, people know your business whether you (or they) want that or not.  So you’d want to ward off gossip if you can because gossip means you’ve lost your privacy.  In Bhutan, a phallus was your Facebook privacy setting.  (Now days these phalluses are appearing less as the Bhutanese have been influenced by the shyness of such things–this likely networked into their culture through the British Christian and Middle Eastern Muslim connections of India.)

Similarly in the Networked World of Facebook, Twitter, and so on, people can know your business.  The difference, of course, is this depends on whether or not you take actions that puts your business where people can see it.  If you choose to identify yourself.  If you choose to share. If you don’t set your privacy setting to “high,” virtually painting a phallus on your door to ward off gossip.

If you use my fractal metaphor, there is a difference in point of view from our locus, meaning “the place we view from.”  This difference is, when we lived in villages and had not been put through institutional education, possibly had not traveled far from our homes, and so on, our view was more centered in ourselves, in our place on the fractal looking out, rather than at.  We necessarily had to remain the center of our universes.  As we learn more, we’re more able to see the fractal itself, our context, and how it swirls down in pattern after pattern.  Hopefully not a far stretch and you get what I mean.

So this has sparked a thought about the role of leadership considering how this possibility for individual-centrism works.  Obviously, as we have evolved and tried to organize ourselves, and adapt to our changing ways of satisfying our basic needs (food, shelter, defense against raiders, blah-blah), so the role of leaders has changed.  In the Walter Isaacson biography, Steve Jobs remarks about how he needed the context of the great people he’d assembled at Apple to be great himself.  To be the ultimate individual, the great leader, a “Steve Jobs” needs the team, the village.

The trade-off is, there is no privacy.  If you are famous, people will find out some story about things you’ve done.  In the same way, as we participate and connect in the networked world, make ourselves famous in that context, we trade off our privacy.  Somehow this might be useful, as we might be forced to look at our flaws, if we are aware enough.  Our fame in our network might make us feel we’re not alone. On the other hand, the biography and subsequent movie people write out of your life is rarely spot-on.  Usually we’ve left out plenty of chapters, inside stories, contexts that lead to the way things became.  We cannot see all the myriad causes and conditions; we don’t understand karma in this sense of context.  We can’t fully understand why he or she did that – or even maybe why we did that, whatever “that” is.

As we become more and more connected to each other and trade off more and more privacy, our very way of thinking has to adapt.  Our notion of “mine” has to adapt.  If you take the example of Steve Jobs feeding off the greatness of his team, and saying he cannot “be” without them, then you might start to think that this is in fact a profoundly different way of existing together.  Where we had cut ourselves off from each other, retreating into our individualism, now we evolve to the next level, perhaps more of a hive-mind.

“Mine” is at the root of privacy and individualism.  It is at the root of ego and pride.  It is at the root of separating ourselves from others, of saying, “Look at me, this is mine, and I am different. I am not you. I compete with you. I am better than you. I need privacy.  But I love you!”  “I” becomes the king, the CEO, the lord and master.  In the ancient village, we became serfs to that “I.”  In the future, perhaps there is room for the creativity of that “I,” the discipline to push our lazy selves to be a better “I,” without the need for an “I” to exercise their mastery over any other “I.”  To use grammatical terms, perhaps we’re moving from a subject-object world not to an object-object world, but a subject-subject linked world.

Of course, as usual, this leaves me with more questions to answer.  Do we need a leader?  How does “Steve Jobs” fit into this?  Is it possible for  networks of “I” to swarm and organize for and solve for and evolve us?  If we can, then do we trade off privacy, opening ourselves to more connections and, perhaps, danger from an “I” who would want to make what is “ours” into “theirs” (“mine”)?  Who is gonna wash the socks and sweep up around here?  A very abstract view, but often the future is the thing that “I” (and maybe “you”) cannot possibly now imagine.

One Response to “The New Village: There is No Privacy in the Networked World”

  1. Privacy and Voyeurism: @SleepNoMoreNYC – (A Sort of Review of the Play) « Says:

    […] « The New Village: There is No Privacy in the Networked World […]

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