Support Social Change or end Crime? (Requiem)

This article is a heavy rewrite of a concept first wrote about here. I think it’s worth refining my work every so often, but this took much more of a rewrite than I would normally give – it’s clear than when I first wrote about it I was struggling to process the idea.

Over the last three years I’ve been following Operation Yewtree with interest and horror.  It all seems so awful, not least  because the defence appears to be “It was all very acceptable at the time”.  The thing that has struck me very forcibly is to wonder what is it that my society does that future generations will turn pale at.  Unelected scrutiny of laws? Drink driving? It’s at least starting to become unacceptable (except the morning after).  Speeding is certainly acceptable culturally, as is media piracy (and at least the pirates didn’t kill or seriously injury 3,064 people last year due to excessive download speed).  The selective abortion of babies that would have had a learning disability?

It’s a haunting thing to wonder about – partly because you know full well that a) it’s probably going to be something you didn’t think of and b) it’s probably going to be something that you are doing right now.

….and of course we can stop it. We could decide to, as a society, stop the change by simply removing the concept of privacy.

I find privacy less useful that most people.  I’m fairly happy to drop implicit social barriers where I can. Examples might include being quite into the quantified self movement and by being very open about approaches to things like twitter and goals. The most obvious example is of course, having a blog at all: you can practically define a blog as a method of making private thoughts public. As I wrote when I put out my 2014 twitter resolutions, I get a lot of positive benefits out of being open with the world that I wouldn’t if I were closed in.

As an aside: I’m relatively open compared to, say, the average person, but if you’d like to see openness really pushed quite far it’s worth reading Steve Pavlina, who was (and remains) a very high-profile productivity blogger – he went on to start blogging about this divorce and then his later experimentation with bondage and dominance in relationships. I salute the man’s commitment to openness, but can’t imagine being *that* open…

If we removed the right to privacy – make it culturally normal to be able to read each other’s emails, bank accounts, and text messages – there would be a massive array of benefits. For-profit crime (as opposed to crimes of passion – I suspect there would be a brief spike in those) would quickly eliminate themselves. Lying would become something close to a relic because everything would be so easy to check and scientific progress would jump forward because sharing data would be the norm.

From the point of view of this topic though – the removal of privacy would also prevent use being caught in a nasty trap generations from now.  We’d find out who was ‘not normal’ right now and treat them accordingly.  The baddies would be treated badly and those who do the ‘acceptable’ bad things would find acceptable from a population that secretly all did them.

The problem is…  that if we had done this 50 years ago we’d still be putting gay people into prision.  If we’d done it 150 years ago the idea of women voting would have been snuffed out before it had a chance to blossom.   300 years ago – we’d still have slaves. All of those generations believed that they were correct and that the ones that had gone before where wrong.  And they changed by people meeting other people they trusted and forming movements under the radar of society.


On the other hand, I do very much believe in a person’s right to privacy. I think that the world could be considerably more perfect, and that privacy is pretty necessary as an ingredient letting social change gather pace. Consider how things like homosexuality, being of the ‘wrong’ race and various other crimes were treated 50 years ago compared to now. I’m really looking forward to being 80 and seeing 50 years of social change – and I’m pretty sure that without privacy we won’t get very far at all.


The problem is that the more of myself that I am open about, the more I diminish the position of people carefully maintaining their privacy. There are big things that people keep quiet (for example if you’ve reassigned your gender) and little things (like if you’d started smoking again and didn’t want your sister to find out), but if it becomes normal to be open (which I do think would be a good thing) then those people who are the vanguard of social change are going to get a kicking…

…and I don’t have a way to resolve these two positions.

To finish, there is a fascinating TED talk by Dan Gilbert which leaves us with this thought:

The bottom line is, time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences. It reshapes our values. It alters our personalities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect. Only when we look backwards do we realize how much change happens in a decade. It’s as if, for most of us, the present is a magic time. It’s a watershed on the timeline. It’s the moment at which we finally become ourselves. Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.


(As is often the case, the page image is from Wikicommons – I was looking for something in terms of ‘mask’ or ‘disguise’ and this jumped out of me.  I decided I didn’t care how relevant it was to the post on privacy, I was having the picture of the dog in dark glasses) 


I believe in every person’s right to privacy (one of the goals of the work I do in AAC is to provide technical frameworks that allow AAC users this right).

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