I will be giving a colloquium talk at the department of Computer Science & Electrical Engineering at UMBC titled “Negotiating Privacy, Boundaries and Visibility in a Networked World: Why We Need to Move Beyond Opt-in vs. Opt-Out.”
Date : Friday 3 December 2010
Time : 11:00a
Location : 325b, ITE Building at UMBC
It seems that not a week goes by without a new eruption of privacy troubles. Most people are clearly disoriented and confused by this onslaught – the fallout from the introduction of Google Buzz, the confusion caused by changing of Facebook defaults, or the vulnerabilities that Firesheep exposed. Unfortunately, too often, the debate does not proceed beyond the particulars of each crisis – and, at best, concludes a call for opt-in rather than an opt-out mechanism for rolling out new changes. While I also agree that establishing opt-in as a standard would be an important step forward, this is just the tip of the iceberg of the broad discussion we need to be having about the impact of the profound transformation in the infrastructure of our society that has come about as a result of the rapid incorporation of the digital world into our commons. Crucially, the architecture of the digital world, as it stands, differs in significantly from the architecture of the offline world. This new setting brings about new structures of visibility, connectivity and boundaries – and some of these affordances and allowances clash violently with our previously-established expectations and norms of visibility and boundaries that are based mostly on the architecture of the non-digital world. It is very important for people who design and build this infrastructure to be fully-immersed in the debate about the world they are helping create. Design is never neutral and always involves choices about power, structure and possibility.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for much better communication between designers of digital architecture and social scientists. I hope to talk about how design and coding considerations have strong ethical and social implications. I also want to sketch out the particulars ways in which prevalent architectural configurations in online spaces clash with our socio-mental configurations of presence and boundaries. While most people are aware that online places have different characteristics compared with offline spaces, it is hard to carry out everyday interactions under the shadow of this knowledge. For example, most college students interact online mostly with people they also interact with offline. So, the online conversation space socio-mentally feels like hanging out with friends which tends to happen in enclosed spaces bounded by walls, entered through doors, scannable visibly, etc. It is hard to have a conversation with one’s close friends while constantly thinking: “Maybe this will end up in the news tommorow; maybe my boss will see this; maybe my professor will see this.” After awhile the online place becomes normalized into the intuitions we have from offline places because of the nature of the interaction in them.
In other words, the activities we are undertaking structure our perceptions of the place that we are undertaking those activities. We are talking with close friends? We must be in an intimate space. It’s the reverse sense of interviewing for television through a camera in a small room when the host is located at the other end of the country. Even though one is often sitting in a small room with a light shining in one’s face with nobody but the cameraperson in the room, one has a distinct sense of being in a big place talking to a lot of people even though, in reality, you’re sitting in a room talking to yourself while staring at at a round glass attached to a large, black apparatus. It would be hard to keep up the interview unless one lets the socio-mental image dominate — i.e. one is talking to a large audience. That is how it naturally works.
So when people act on the Internet primarily concerned with the audience in their socio-mental image of the place, it does not mean that people are stupid or that they are unaware of the actual digital architecture — that their posts might end up visible to unwanted audiences, that they are talking on the Internet. It just means that it is unrealistic to assume that people can effortlessly carry the cognitive burden of this activity/architecture mismatch that is imposed by design. Since most of our interactions are in physical spaces from birth (and since we are embodied creatures and not brains in vats!), it is perfectly understandable for the intuitions from “meatspace” –where our meat is, after all– to dominate our socio-mental sense of the place.
And, then, of course, something happens to burst that bubble — unwelcome audiences, unwanted exposure — and people are upset. I see a lot of “tsk, tsk, they should have known better,” especially among people who are among the technological elite. I think that’s unfair. I also think we would have much better systems if there was more thought that went into understanding the socio-mental perceptions of people and doing a better job matching the digital architecture to those perceptions. And that calls for a better dialogue between designers and coders of the digital world and social scientists.