Living on the Edge

by on January 2, 2008 · 0 comments

Each year, the Edge Foundation surveys a score (~160 this year) of prominent scientists and other notables for brief-essay answers to a big-picture question. This year: “What have you changed your mind about?”

Some elaboration:

When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that’s faith.
When facts change your mind, that’s science.


Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?”

With Richard Dawkins, Aubrey de Grey (less repetitive than usual), various Dysons, Denis Dutton, and Brian Eno among the respondents, there’s plenty of interest to read and consider.

And much to mock. On the existence of god as a signal of one’s above-it-all elitism, compare the trite Alan Alda (yes, him) with an unusually shrill Clay Shirky.

For a good laugh, read the always humorous Douglas Rushkoff’s entry. (He is joking, right?) Rushkoff says he had expected the Internet “would change people,” but, “Sadly, cyberspace has become just another place to do business.”

Sadly, Tyler Cowen did not contribute. Perhaps he’ll pen a riposte.

Esther Dyson’s deceptively simple post on online privacy stands out (among many that do). Way back when, she thought that individuals would consume privacy-enhancing services, but that never happened so she changed her mind: who cares, when consumers certainly don’t? But more recently, another change: “Users have never learned the power to say no to marketers who want their data…but they are getting into the habit of controlling it themselves because Facebook is teaching them that this is a natural thing to do.”


In short, for many users the Web is becoming a mirror, with users in control, rather than a heavily surveilled stage. The question isn’t how to protect users’ privacy, but rather how to give them better tools to control their own data – not by selling privacy or by getting them to “sell” their data, but by feeding their natural fascination with themselves and allowing them to manage their own presence. What once seemed like an onerous, weird task becomes akin to self-grooming online.

It’s an interesting thought. Privacy as property is unwieldy, and it’s never taken off as a consumption good, either. Privacy by form contract works, but only so far as it’s worth anyone’s time and effort to even think about it–usually, it’s not. But this is more interesting: think of online privacy as the other side of convenience/utility of revelation and focus on the latter, not privacy itself. Facebook, per Dyson, is a good example–I get to choose what disclosures will benefit me.

The point is that online privacy is becoming much more nuanced and, when the issue is framed in terms of practical benefits, informed consumers are choosing to disclose. This is the mostly hypothetical market that so many have been arguing would arise (or already existed) for so many years. This won’t snuff the burning-hot privacy debates, to be sure, but it should throw a bit of water on the fire, gradually, over time. After all, isn’t consumer control what every side says it wants?

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