Freewheeling about being Private in Public

As the name of this blog suggests, I was born and brought up in Calcutta. I have no way of knowing for sure, but it seems reasonable for me to assume that my core thoughts about privacy were formed during the 23 years I lived there.

It’s a crowded city. A lot of middle-class people live “vertically”, in highrise apartments. My family were no different; while the number of people at home fluctuated between 7 and 12, the floor area remained at the 1500 sq. ft. mark. So you could say we were densely packed at home.

The school I went to may have been thought of as elitist, but it was no different from many others when you look at the numbers. Around 40 students per class, 4 classes per year, 1500 students in the school. Normal. Dense.

Most people I knew used public transport, which was plentiful. And dense.

Amidst all this denseness, the sense of community was very high. And it was normal for things to be communally owned. Particularly at home, ownership was something associated with a family and not a person.

This sense of community pervaded everything we did. We tended to play together, study together, work together, laugh together, cry together. Memories of home, of school, of college, all revolved around spending time with others. And eating.

Even the food we ate was communal; easily stretched to accommodate more people. The adda was really a physical blogosphere.

No surprise then that our identities were also communal; who we were quite quickly became a function of family and neighbourhood and occupation and employment. [In this particular case, when one looks at naming conventions, there was no real difference between east and west. Maybe the difference came with affluence and with disruption of the social fabric, as single-person dwellings and single-parent families became more common in the west].

Communal ownership. Communal identities. Communal rites of passage and communal meeting places. All in an environment where everything was densely packed: the home, the school, the neighbourhood, the workplace, public transportation, the city itself.

Against this backdrop, you can imagine how intriguing I found concepts of privacy when I turned up in the UK. Of course we had privacy in India, but not the twitching-net-curtains variety. Much of our privacy was what we made of it, and it was out in the open. There was nowhere else.

So maybe it’s an environment thing, maybe it’s a culture thing. If that’s the case, then the results of a recent Pew Internet study, entitled Digital Footprints, make interesting reading. I quote from the summary (my emphasis):

Internet users are becoming more aware of their digital footprint; 47% have searched for information about themselves online, up from just 22% five years ago. However, few monitor their online presence with great regularity. Just 3% of self-searchers report that they make a regular habit of it and 74% have checked up on their digital footprints only once or twice.

Indeed, most internet users are not concerned about the amount of information available about them online, and most do not take steps to limit that information. Fully 60% of internet users say they are not worried about how much information is available about them online. Similarly, the majority of online adults (61%) do not feel compelled to limit the amount of information that can be found about them online.

Maybe things are changing; that’s what I am trying to work on.

Now there are a hundred experts out there working on this, so why would I be arrogant enough to think I can do better? Don’t worry, I’m not. I try my best to read what they have to say, and to discuss it with as many of the experts as I can meet. Those active in the Identity space tend to be accessible and gregarious, which is a good thing.

The difference between what the experts are doing and what I am doing is one of perspective. I am asking myself the question “what happens if I take my beliefs on abundance and scarcity and overlay that on public and private, if I start thinking that abundant equals public and scarce equals private?”

That’s the question that keeps me awake when I want to be kept awake. I’m too old to be kept awake any other way, I can fall asleep at the drop of a hat. And often do.

Views? Comments?

Musing lazily about identity

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Who you are is a function of:

  • what you stand for
  • what you belong to (both blood as well as thunder)
  • what you like (and what you dislike)
  • what you’ve done (and what you’d like to do)

Sure there are many other things. Ways to contact you. The size of your wallet. All kinds of things that other people use to “define” you: your age, gender, marital status, number of dependents, address.

Interestingly, these mattered when “socio-economic groupings” meant something, when “marketing” could predict your propensity to buy something based on all the boxes they put you into. [If you’re interested in hearing a worthwhile rant on this subject, try and spend some time with Professor Richard Scase, “Futurescase” as he gets called. I’ve relished the privilege.]

Today, the marketers are in trouble. Socio-economic groupings mean jack when it comes to predicting purchase propensity. Long tails weave their equalising ways across class and gender and hirsuteness, or lack of.

In the meantime, everyone else (bar the marketers) is into biometrics. And maybe that’s acceptable. Was a shibboleth an early form of biometric identification? Well, at least the shibboleth identified someone as a member of a group (or not, as the case may be). You see, one of the problems we face with modern definitions of privacy and confidentiality is deeply connected to this need for a protected need for individuality.

No man is an iland.

We are going to have villages and towns and cities where the computing device is communal. Where that communal device uses opensource software and open standards and open platforms and open open open.

And we’re going to have to work out what identity means there. Not identity from a narrow financial-transaction point of view. But identity in the context of sharing information. Digital information. Letters. Photographs. Films. Music. Books. Whatever.

Communal devices. Communal devices that work when the local power grid goes down. Communal devices that don’t go obsolescent in 18 months. Communal devices that do their bit about global warming.

Communal devices.

Hey, let’s be careful out there. This is why I am so concerned about the garbage that gets one in the name of DRM and IPR. Have you really tried to use a “family” PC after Windows 95? One that three or four people use regularly, who are happy to share their files. If only they could.

An aside, still about identity. When I look at startups, one of the things that I check out very carefully is how the core team got together. Did they grow up in the same neighbourhood? Hang out in the same places? Know the same people? Go to the same university?

I’ve always felt this is important. Unless the core has some independent grounding, some reason to be together, they’re going to come apart when trouble comes their way. And every startup will hit trouble sometime in the early years.

In similar vein, I tend to check out what makes a group come together. Take America. The folk rock band, I mean, the ones who gave us Don’t Cross The River and Ventura Highway. [And Horse With No Name and Sandman, but those are not my favourites…].

Do you know how they got together? They were all sons of US GIs stationed west of London, in Ruislip, Middlesex. Their mothers were all British. They attended the same school. They broke up before they really got started, in 1969. And then came together in time to savour their success.

Just goes to show.