Privacy doesn’t exist in a global village

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New Delhi | April 04, 2018 3:31 AM

Technology, by its very nature, simply keeps evolving. Existing structures that sustain themselves on control of information will steadily dwindle—open source is the imminent future.

technology, global villageOnce a technology comes into being, it can’t be reversed, undiscovered, turned off.

The discovery that information from 50 million Facebook accounts was sold to Cambridge Analytica for the price of 270,000 accounts shows, first off, that Facebook is not as savvy a business as many think it is. The louder impact, of course, is that people everywhere are alarmed that personal information, which they continue to happily deliver to the internet, is being used for potentially nefarious ends. Regulators are wondering whether/how they can control this.

To my mind, this is trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle. Once a technology comes into being, it can’t be reversed, undiscovered, turned off. It only gets faster, cheaper, better, in the phrase so popular during the dot com boom. The impact will fall where it will and there is no turning back the clock to a glorious remembered past of, for instance, large numbers of high-paying manufacturing jobs.

To believe that we—who?—can collectively control the flow of information about ourselves is a pipe dream. Even if we forget about Facebook for the moment, much of our financial activity is already electronic, providing a reasonably clear picture of who we are (what we spend), and the creeping Internet of Things will soon tell the world about when we run out of toilet paper, touching a very private, personal area of our lives.

Privacy is over. The global village, first articulated by Marshal McLuhan in the 1960s, is here, and has already surpassed his most visionary dreams. The interface between the old world—discrete duchies where individuals or groups can control information to their own ends—and the new—the global village, where truth is the only value—is, of course, very edgy. Note, the rise, over the past 20 years or so, of a large number of media-savvy (subconscious or otherwise) autocrats that are, in the name of democracy, debasing democracy.

To be sure, there have always been tensions between different groups in societies all over the world. However, the continuing march of technology—in particular, but not just, social media—is intensifying and globalising these tensions, leading to greater polarisation and increasing uncertainty. And, just as in financial markets, sharply higher volatility (uncertainty) presages a structural change. On the other side, places like Dubai—which 15 years ago (presciently, I think) I described as either the end of the world or the beginning of the world—are bringing hundreds of nationalities together as part of regular working life, which, by its nature, eliminates prejudice and alienation. Emirates ki Jai!

While, at the moment, the negative forces appear in the ascendant—they always do since media focuses almost exclusively on them—the selfsame social media and the definitive shift in attitudes of (mostly) young people towards experiences over assets have me convinced that the global village is becoming more and more real.

The current terror of “losing control of information about ourselves” will also abate. After all, in a perfect village, everyone knows everything about everyone else—there are no information asymmetries. In contrast, in today’s villages (or towns, cities, countries, the global stage), there are an elite few who are able to harness information before anyone else. But, as technology perfects the global village, the advantage these elites carry will be whittled away.

Truth will become the only currency. Any time you tell an untruth, whether verbally or through the more sophisticated tools of sophistry used in business and politics, everyone will know in an instant. I can envisage an AI-driven world where the moment anyone tells an untruth, there will instantly be a pop-up on a screen—or, soon enough, a voice in the sky—that laughs derisively at the tragic liar. Trump, Putin, Modi, Erdogan and their ilk will be history. The legal profession will disappear; no offence to anyone, I know some lovely lawyers.

While all this may sound charmingly naïve, the fact is that even if the evolution doesn’t reach that point by Wednesday, this is the true potential of technology—to free not just individuals but the world. And technology, by its very nature, simply keeps evolving. Existing structures that sustain themselves on control of information will steadily dwindle—open source is (finally) the imminent future. Most important of all, the inherent transparency will compel human change to where we all have bigger smiles on our faces.
By definition, we don’t have anything to hide; soon it will become the basic operating system.

So, don’t worry about Facebook stealing your secrets, or Aadhaar doing God knows what. The truth is only of value if it is free. As a very wise man once said:

Talk is cheap

Ideas are cheaper

Thoughts are cheaper still

And dreams, of course, are free

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