Privacy and the Cloud

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: People have expressed many reservations about cloud-based computing, including, most importantly, the issue of privacy. Does that worry you at all?

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BS: The question of privacy divides into two. With a big-brother government that doesn’t function in people’s interest, privacy is a huge issue. It’s the same with corporations which by definition are motivated solely by shareholder profit. When it comes to my friends and acquaintances, however, I just don’t see privacy in the same terms; I don’t mind the idea living my life in public. My sense is that much of the concern regarding privacy is a product of our times rather than a function of human nature. Several hundred years ago, when we lived in villages, there was no privacy. Everyone knew everyone’s business. And life went on. Privacy concerns regarding governments and corporations are important, but I think there is a tendency today to lump a bunch of issues into the same basket.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: But Facebook is a company that tracks user behavior on such a microscopic level that every click is being traced and then turned around and sold to advertisers. You’re being encouraged to share your social life so that this company can monetize it and sell it.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: Yeah, but, again, if the reason to be concerned about privacy is that you want to curtail the power of corporations or the government, I can understand that one. But it’s privacy in the abstract that I have trouble with. And I think that people don’t make that distinction, but to me it’s a really important one. I think you were probably there — were you there at CUNY [the City University of New York] the day I gave a talk to biographers?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: No, I couldn’t make it.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: One of the biographers was a guy who gets a huge $2 million advance, goes away for ten years, and writes a book. I raised a question for him: I said, “How about doing it differently? Your publisher will announce that you’re going to begin work on a biography of Andrew Jackson. Everyone who is interested in you and your work will start paying $1 a year, and you, in effect, write it in public. You have a blog, you tell everybody what you’re reading, you ask questions, you engage with them during the whole ten years, and at the end of that, you’ve got a better piece of work, and you’ll probably have at least the same $2 million dollars.”

Permalink for this paragraph 0 And he immediately [makes sign of the cross] and I said, “Okay, I get it: that’s not how you work, and you don’t have to change. You can keep doing this for another ten, twenty years.” But I said, “I guarantee you, that there is some young woman at CUNY now who is getting her Ph.D. in History, who has lived her life on MySpace and Facebook. And the idea of living and working in public doesn’t have the same negative connotation that it does for you.”

Permalink for this paragraph 0 And I believe that. I think that our sense of privacy is changing, and that people need to start to parse what aspects of privacy are important to them, and what aren’t. I understand the threat to privacy that Facebook represents, but it also enables me to have a wonderful relationship with a group of people I really care about, which wouldn’t be possible otherwise. And I don’t actually have any problem with the trade-off.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Reading and writing, especially as you’ve just described them, but also as seen through many of your projects, have become more social. I don’t know if this is a new tagline for Sophie [the multimedia authoring environment that Stein developed], but at least one of them is “Books are becoming the place where communities of readers meet.” It seems that whether you have a network forming in the sidebar of a text through CommentPress and interacting, or whether the composing process itself is altered, reading and writing have become social processes. So, two questions about that. Is there something about the solitary experience that we’re losing? Is that something worth preserving? Do we need to reconfigure our sense of solitary experience?

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BS: As recently as 150 years ago, reading aloud in a group was the norm. A lot of things people think they can’t imagine losing or behaviors they can’t imagine changing are relatively new. Even the idea of owning books — two-hundred years ago, your average middle-class person didn’t have a library. In fact, they didn’t have a library until after World War II, when paperbacks came out. You had to be rich to afford a personal library. I think that there is a tendency not to have a very good historical view of media and our relationship to it.

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