The Value of Privacy?


The other day I was reading about the uproar the class action law suit against Facebook was creating. Commentators and activists alike were deriding the fact that Facebook had unscrupulously ‘eavesdropped’ on private messages to determine what kind of advertisements and products could be pushed onto our personal Facebook home pages. There has been a long held suspicion and whisper campaign that internet giant Google is also not above board on such personal data mining and use without permission. The fear of personal data theft and use and the consequences thereof seems to be morphing into Privacy versus Technology crusade for many.

value-of-privacy-624x468

As I muse over all this, I wonder what really is this outrage over privacy all about? Is it not that we voluntarily share information about ourselves a thousand times more than what we did a mere decade back? Is it not that we share such information to make our own lives easier?

I can recall a prescient prediction of more than a decade ago which said that ‘our planet will acquire an electronic skin’. We seem to have reached some kind of a tipping point where communication between person to person, person to inanimate object and even between inanimate objects is becoming increasingly commonplace using smart devices. Such communications and information flows get supported as disparate technologies converge and in between gatekeepers vanish. Technology giant CISCO dubs this as “internet of everything”.

So what really is occurring? On one end of the spectrum is the promise of Web 2.0, cloud computing and allied architecture allowing off-machine data storage and ‘on demand’ application access. Somewhere in the middle are the rapid strides of broadband, wireless internet and cutting edge data analytics. The other end of the spectrum remains all about mobile devices and smart phones. Each of them holding computing power more than what was available for the Apollo missions to the moon!

As the planet’s ‘electronic skin’ becomes more pervasive in this manner, it supports us to make things simple. As it begins to ‘understand’ our needs, preferences and propensity for repetitive tasks. Be it about the kind of television channel or social media we watch. Or the kind of cuisine and wine we prefer on weekends. Or monitor chronic ailments to cut our health costs. Or track and complete payments of our bills. Or our office / home address and what route to take to reach there most optimally. Or our offices and homes to predict and act on our energy, water and other service needs. Or to………….. The possibilities are endless and ever increasing.

wired-world

How could this ‘electronic skin’ support us in all the above ways if it was not privy to our private information and preferences? How could we hanker for more of our needs to be anticipated by the environment if we did not allow more complete profiles of ourselves to be maintained within the same environment?

I muse about this apparent contradiction.

Could it be that as we seek increased support and comforts from technology in terms of automating our life’s mundane tasks, we choose to ignore the fact that this requires constant exchange of our privacy data between networks and devices? Could it be that what we assumed as our ‘privacy perimeter’ in the past may no longer be relevant in an increasingly wired world? As Steve Rambam, the internet privacy specialist says, “Privacy is dead- get over it”. So how do we ‘get over it’ and re-visualise our privacy parameter?

I sense the concern that most of us carry about privacy. Through the annals of history, we have come to see privacy as an undeniable human right, inseparable from the concept of liberty. When we perceive an assault on our privacy, we apprehend a loss of freedom through being judged, criticized and corrected. Further, with an ‘electronic skin’ all around, we now fear that electronic footprints we leave behind might be used to implicate or defraud us. Is the core of our privacy concern about being compromised by something we have hidden or need to hide? Or is it about losing our individuality as all we say or do gets recorded in that all around ‘electronic skin’?

So how could we reassess the value of privacy in our lives today? I believe that first we need to shift ourselves away from the perspective that it is all about liberty versus control. This need not be if we retain conviction about what we say and do and not get dissuaded by the thought of getting judged or criticized. Secondly, we need to become comfortable with our personal lives being increasingly visible to others. As we feel less need to ‘hide’ aspects of ourselves. As we embrace values of integrity and authenticity into our lives. As we align more and more with the path yielding the greatest good for our organisations, communities and society at large.

In learning…………… Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement: ‘The Value of Privacy’- A blog post by Bruce Schneier, May 2006

Coming of the Second Wave


So you speak to me of sadness and the coming of the winter,
The fear that is within you now that seems to never end,
and the dreams that have escaped you and the hope that you’ve forgotten,
and you tell me that you need me now and you want to be my friend,
and you wonder where we’re going, where’s the rhyme and where’s the reason?

                                                                   John Denver, Rhymes and Reasons, 1969.

  

Is it not ironic that at times when we stand close to a momentous event, seeing it unfolding in all its HD brilliance, we tend to miss the wood for the trees in terms of its future impact? So it was when the Berlin wall came down; most folks saw it as the factual German reunification rather than the tectonic ideological change about Communism it portended. So it is with the Occupy Wall Street protests, mostly being seen as anger against job losses and lack of economic opportunities rather than something more structural.

As I look around, I see a march of seemingly unrelated trends and events.

  • Declining social and political trust arising out of a growing global inequality and a deepening fiscal crisis. This has lead to a crisis for pension, healthcare schemes etc. dependent on debt burdened states.
  • A heightened perceived insecurity in the developed world. For the first time in generations, people no longer believe their children will grow up to have a better standard of living.
  • More criminality. Be it cyber crimes, drug trafficking or acts of urban terrorism. Symptoms of rising youth unemployment and disenchantment.

During this year’s Davos meet of the World Economic forum, failures of the globalised market economy and an ‘uncertain future’ of Capitalism became the main issues. Ironic when you consider that over the years, Davos has become a byword for Globalisation.

I notice that Capitalism and Globalisation, those two economic pillars of the last few decades, appear to be losing flavour. So, is the world at some kind of an inflexion point?

I believe we have begun grappling with a massive socio-economic change. A change ushered in by programmable machines, networks and the World Wide Web. I had spoken of this in some detail in an earlier post. I say again that technology implementation is resulting in massive shifts at the work place as also how the very concept of work itself needs to be viewed. For the first time in history, technology, without human intervention, is adding economic value and wealth. So those getting in ahead of the game in terms of controlling technology are the new millionaires, displacing the aristocrats and industrialists of the last century. And these millions are being created thick and fast with hardly the need for additional employment generation. Not only is this fuelling a widening wealth gap and disparity, it is leaving more and more of the population behind, unemployed and dispossessed.

Small wonder therefore that a recently published global Wealth Report indicates that most of world’s richest people became richer through the recent economic downturn and into 2011. When in fact the average middle class family actually saw its income fall in real terms. According to Economist Paul Krugman. the current disparity gap in the USis the biggest since the 1920s. Clearly we have entered a landmark period of inequality where the gap is widening to unprecedented levels.

But do you know where the core irony of this whole situation lies? Well it happens to be our much vaunted economic models that not only failed to predict but also to come up with solutions to handle the inequality problem. Worse, if we were to go by economic theory, it is possible to show overall economic growth while significant part of the population is facing a recession or mired in poverty!

So if the predictive reliability of modern economics cannot be relied on, what do we as a society fall back upon? I sense fear as political leaderships all over brace themselves against increased social and political backlash of a growing global inequality. In the Occupy Wall Street protests. In the Arab Spring uprisings. In the resurgence of Marxism in the Indian tribal belts. In the eschewing of the rugged Thatcherism by the British Conservative party as it swing towards leftist policies.

There remain vestiges in our societal psyche of what happened a century back. The chasm between rich and poor opened up by the industrial revolution had been one of the main factors that led to the massive unrest in the first half of the twentieth century. Reaction to this had culminated in adoption of the Communism model in large parts of the world.

I believe we have once again reached that inflexion point where conditions are ripe for the coming of Socialism’s ‘Second Wave.’ I see this as a reaction to the perceived failure of the Capitalistic model and the kind of Globalisation and growth it has spawned. This Second Wave would need to show us ways of re-distributing the wealth created by that part of technology working without human intervention.

Would this be the way Inequality would give us our rhyme and our reason for the future?

In Learning…………..                                                                                        Shakti Ghosal

Not so elementary, my dear Watson!


“Knowledge comes by eyes always open and working hands; and there is no knowledge that is not power.”

                                                                                                        Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1862

 Awhile back, I had been intrigued to read about IBM’s artificial intelligence (AE) named Watson competing in the Quiz show Jeopardy and beating two of Jeopardy’s record holding champions at their own game! It made me realise the extent to which AE development has been able to close in on to the human mind in terms of sifting through and analysing information to reach a correct decision. IBM’s Watson has clearly graduated from the realm of data crunching to become a possessor of knowledge.

Since the dawn of civilisation, Man has sought knowledge. Knowledge to alleviate hardships, to control the environment, to predict outcomes. Knowledge became a source of power and this manifested itself throughout history. Be it through intrigue, technology or the Brahmin rituals. Through millennia and centuries, such a belief only got reinforced.

As individuals, we develop our knowledge by linking it to other knowledge bases. But our belief in our own knowledge is not for knowledge sake but the power we derive from it. Be it in our personal or professional lives. Our inner fears of loss of power or relevance make us resist any changes in our knowledge structure. Eve though deep down we do realise that like all else, there can be no permanence; change in one aspect can shift the entire knowledge structure and its relevance.

But knowledge to be useful has to move away from being mere information. Especially as we face an exponential overload of information. Raw, disjointed data streaming in from all over. And as we grapple with this information avalanche, we have no time to reflect, analyse and produce usable knowledge.

It was only in the last century that we witnessed a formal acknowledgement of what has come to be known as “knowledge work”. And in 1959, Peter Drucker coined “Knowledge worker” as someone who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace.

So how do I see knowledge trending? As organisations have sailed into this century, business leaders have believed in the mantra of investing in technology and knowledge workers. But they also continue to hold the belief that for goals to be achieved there needs to be a control over the work activity and process flow. But this clashes with the loose and unstructured environment that the knowledge worker seeks.

And then there is the deeper issue of a radically changing workplace. As chip based machines take over structured and repetitive activities, the less skilled workers increasingly take on “knowledge worker-like” qualities. Be it book-keepers, clerks or factory floor workers. In essence, more and more workers are learning to manipulate and use knowledge in a decentralised and flat manner.

The twenty first century workplace demands knowledge through unhindered access to information not only within the organisation but by connecting to diverse, outside sources. But does this not run contrary to our age old belief that to retain power, we need to keep the individual in a silo, fed with only ‘need to know” information and expertise? Clearly a significant perspective shift is warranted in our business leaders to be able to accept a radically different information flow and power structure.

And this I would term as our knowledge quandary.

As workers, we need and demand more and more instant access to information from all over. As individuals, we have less and less time to mull over and process the veritable deluge of information coming at us. As leaders and managers, we like to retain power by restricting information and knowledge flows on a “need to know” basis. As we hold onto these power bases using outdated knowledge. And in the midst of all this, now queering the pitch is Watson and artificial intelligence coming centre stage. Truly a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes and he would have doubtlessly remarked, “Not so elementary, my dear Watson!”

And what do I envision going forward? Do I see the “power of knowledge’ pendulum swinging wildly between the individual and the corporation? As the former uses unfettered knowledge for empowerment? And as the latter fights to retain control through use of Watson to aggrandise and analyse information, convert to knowledge and take decisions? And what if Watson were to evolve and “learn” to the point that he cracks the last human stronghold of intuition and creativity?

In Learning……………..                                                                                  Shakti Ghosal

A World of Tweeple


Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

 

                                                                                                                                          John Lennon, 1971

 

 

The other day I watched Barkha Dutt’s,“We the Tweeple” on NDTV. While the debate centered on the significant spread of positivity and assertiveness that twitter in particular and social media in general have created amongst common folk, one could still sense disquiet amongst a section of the participants. I was left wondering whether there remained concerns unsaid and unanswered.

It is often remarked that the anarchism the internet and its various appendages have come to signify, holds out the promise of societal empowerment for the first time in the history of mankind. The eighteenth century English philosopher William Godwin believed that the ‘Euthanasia of authority” would need to be achieved through individual reformation. As the tweeple inheriting today’s world, have we taken the onus of reforming ourselves and creating an existence on our own terms, bereft of any Governmental and organisational controls?

So can the social media revolution be viewed as a way forward? A concern that is often voiced is that it is fragmenting society and breaking down societal bonds. But as I ponder, I realise that such shifts in society and its perspectives have occurred many times in the past. Be it the massive changes in the socio-economic structure, culture and customs wrought when we moved from a predominantly agrarian to an industrialised society. Or the relatively lesser breakdown of our sense of neighbourhood and community which the Television brought about. So why this rising shrillness and uncertainty about the negative impact of Twitter, Facebook, SMSs etc?

As I ponder some more, I become aware of a more fundamental shift. A shift that is taking human society away from ethnic, religious and community groupings to connectivities at the individual level. We, the technologically empowered tweeple, are no longer willing to accept family and community pressures to “belong” to specified groups. We would rather prefer to tap into diverse networks that meet our emotional or social needs.

Which brings us to the disturbing aspect of this electronic invasion of social media into our lives viz. the blurring between our inner private space and our outside social footprint. This has major implications on our “thinking out of the box” creativity, our behaviour and even our inner values. As we continue to lose more and more of our inner selves, would we not be losing out on our individualism, our inner peace- which is the reason why we were attracted to be a tweeple and its empowerment in the first place? Therein lies the dilemma and its irony.

So what happens as we move forward a few decades or centuries down the curve?

Would we become a wired node to an omniscient society with the capacity to access information at will, anywhere, any time? In return our innermost thoughts and beliefs on display for all to see and examine? Would those frightening visions of The Matrix, of Morpheus welcoming Neo “to the real world” where all people are wired to a central intelligence, come true in this fashion?

Or would social media become the enabler for our heightened individualism as we use its networked capability to achieve John Lennon’s utopia of “joining in and making the world as one?

In Learning……………………..

Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement:

  • Living Networked in a Wired World- by Barry Wellman & Keith Hampton.