Last Friday, I watched a live stream of a fascinating discussion between Danah Boyd and Jeff Jarvis at the Supernova conference. The conversation touched upon several interesting issues related to the tension between private and public data in the Internet age. Boyd (as always) did a great job of articulating what people are concerned about when they talk about losing privacy online. Jarvis on the other hand made an excellent point that all the recent frenzy around privacy runs the risk of alarmism. By focusing too much on privacy, we risk enjoying the benefits of publicness and transparency that the Internet makes possible. But who decides whether private or public should be the default on the Internet? Jarvis put it well, “the social Web is (triggering) Gutenberg-like changes here, so we don’t know where this is all headed.” Or do we?
Jeff Jarvis’ comments got me thinking about Professor Thomas Petit’s “Gutenberg Parenthesis” theory. At a high level, the Gutenberg Parenthesis is a very simple idea (but a big one). According to this theory, the Gutenberg era gave rise to a media culture dominated by text and the printed word, where books sat at the top of the media hierarchy and rumors heard on the street became the least reliable source of information. According to Professor Petit, this period was an interruption (or a mere parenthesis) in the broader context of media history. In the 21st century, the democratization of media creation and distribution (fueled by Web 2.0) is slowly returning us to a media culture where conversation and gossip reigns supreme. In other words, the Internet age is reversing the changes caused by the Gutenberg revolution and this can help us predict what may happen in the future of media culture. We are essentially “going forward to the past” and the nature of media in today’s digital age has a lot in common with the pre-Gutenberg era. In medieval times, because of the absence of books and a media hierarchy, sorting out the truth was left largely up to individuals. Doesn’t seem too different from today, where we often first learn about things from social media feeds or blogs rather than newspapers, books or media conglomerates. We may be progressing, but from a media culture and media cognition standpoint we could be becoming more like medieval societies. The Gutenberg Parenthesis theory owes a lot to the work of Marshall McLuhan. He famously coined the term “Global Village” in the 60’s and predicted that electronic technology was contracting the world into an interconnected electronic nervous system. This was years before the world wide web, but we are now actually living in the Global Village that is broadening our social spheres, breaking down geographic and cultural barriers and bringing us all closer.
So what does the Gutenberg Parenthesis and the Global Village have to do with privacy? To understand the connection, you have to go back to the origin of privacy. We spend so much time lamenting the loss of our cherished value of privacy without realizing that information privacy is essentially a modern invention. Medieval societies had absolutely no concept of privacy. It was only in the Gutenberg age that information privacy emerged in response to the dangers of photographs and newspapers invading the “sacred precincts of private and domestic life”. If we are entering an age that is after the Gutenberg Parenthesis, where the dissemination of knowledge is communal and shared rather than centralized and controlled, we may also come to appreciate the benefits of publicness in an interconnected Global Village. What if the age of information privacy (as we know it) was the real anomaly and not the digital age of social networks and YouTube videos? What if the Internet is not morphing us into narcissistic over-sharers, but actually making us more like our medieval ancestors (with the added benefits of literacy and democracy)? The challenge is our new village is the entire planet and privacy (like other Gutenberg-era inventions like literacy and democracy) has done a lot of good for mankind.
I don’t think the age of privacy is nearing its end, but I do think we may have to shed our old notions of privacy. As Laurent Haug put it so well in a blog post last year, “Privacy is here and doing well. It is just different, and not something that is granted at birth anymore. You have to create it, using the tools that were supposedly taking it away from you.” The question shouldn’t be whether private or public is better in the digital age or whether additional regulation is the solution. Instead, we need to focus on developing tools that help people effectively reconcile the opposing notions of private and public and control the flow of information. We need to get past scare stories like this one, which will only whip privacy advocates into a frenzy and eventually lead to policy decisions that could stifle innovation and the benefits that the social web can bring.