Monday, June 25, 2012

Over exposed

 How many murderers share my train on the morning commute? One? Three? Probably none given that every year in the UK there are only 600 of what the police class as homicides.

For those that want to be sure, there’s no easy way to find out unless you are a serving police officer and even then doing that sort of trawl breaks all kinds of laws. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that limits we impose on technology, both legal and technical, help preserve privacy and anonymity.

Not for long. A quick search reveals at least three separate projects to create apps for phones that look at the people around you, identify them and let you know what they have shared about themselves online. Add to that tech which can already read fingerprints from many meters away and you have a system that renders anonymity meaningless.

The net is also really bad at forgetting the information you shared and, just as there are ways to find out the history of a car you want to buy, then there will be ways to look over the history of anyone and everyone.

And just as there are rating systems for restaurants there will be rating systems for people. That might mean difficult, shouty folks get to eat a lot more food with their server's spit in it but might also mean that you, who is often a model of compassion and good manners, can never escape that moment of madness you always regret or that you can never take back the bad things you said in that row because your heart was being broken. You won’t be able to offer an explanation or context to people you never meet but who will judge you anyway. Some people may feel that burn more swiftly than others.

So, in the future your name, nickname, attitudes and habits will be available to everyone. Chances are the youngsters will see privacy as an old-fashioned notion. Already, if we want to pay someone the compliment of listening to everything they say, we’ll take out the earbuds and listen. A few years from now going private may be reserved only for those most special moments.

In the future, but not too long away, when you travel and meet new folks you’ll know a lot about them. And, because they are complicated human beings, you won’t know all of it. Just the crowdsourced summary which may not be all of it, but what people reacted to. And they’ll know the same about you. That might be pernicious.

Now, when we meet new people we usually know nothing about them. We assume that they are decent folks and proceed on that basis. Society proceeds on that basis. Removing that anonymity for an imperfect summary of someone’s behaviour (poor impulse control, needy, passive aggressive, penny pinching) seems a poor bargain.

People will claim that knowing more about someone will not change their opinion and that they will judge those people by their actions not their past deeds. Human psychology being what it is I suspect that will be unachievable. One way or another it will colour the interaction either by over-compensation or deep-dyed prejudice. Could you ever overlook it, if you met a reformed murderer? Would you let them look after your kids?

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