Privacy: the new status symbol

Posted by Flux on 

6 March 2017

An article written by Dion Chang for City Press.

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes“. These words were etched into the pop culture lexicon by artist Andy Warhol back in 1968. They appeared in a programme for one of his exhibitions at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden.

Little did he know back then that the digital age, and social media in particular, would make those words prophetic. Social media has enabled everyone to be a publisher, an armchair critic and a legend in their own Instagram lunchtime pic. If you’re on any social media platform, chances are that you have been cyber famous for 15 minutes, albeit in your own echo chamber – trolls included.

The other day, I came across a counter statement – ironically on my Instagram feed –  that read: “In the future everyone will be private for 15 minutes”. It’s a sign of the times and an indication of where we are heading. In trend terms, a reverse trend as the pendulum swings back, which happens quite often.

The number of ‘how to ensure your privacy” articles are appearing exponentially, but there is a fork in the road and there are two very different paths to privacy.

Firstly, there’s a growing number of people who are craving social media privacy. Kim Kardashian’s learnt the hard way and her pendulum swung back after she was tied up and robbed of millions of dollars’ worth of jewellery in Paris. The reality TV celebrity, who is famous for sharing pics of anything, from her booty to her jewellery, immediately shut down what, and how frequently, she shares on social media.

When my niece in New York told me that she had ditched her Facebook account, I was both startled and fascinated. Isn’t everyone on Facebook? How was she going to be kept in the loop with family news? I understand that the profile of Facebook users has changed (eg: teenagers fleeing the platform after their parents joined) but this was for a different reason. She wanted to leave an echo chamber that was becoming narrower in its perspective and therefore, depressing. She explained to me how she gleaned different sources of news, how her inner circle of friends connects and the new cyber platforms that enable this (for example, a news curating app called Nuzzle).

So it’s not that she’s become a luddite, she’s still connected, but in a different way: one that is more under the mainstream radar. Present, but private if you will.

The second form of cyber privacy is a much more difficult one to tackle, that of trying to maintain online obscurity. The omnipresence of big data and the rise of AI and algorithmic management is unsettling a lot of people. Your social media feeds and your web browser – Facebook and Google in particular – and not forgetting your cell phone provider, are just three big data platforms that know everything about you. Trying to opt out of that matrix is almost impossible.

Some of the suggestions to eliminate your digital trail on the internet are laughable – only because we would not be able to function in the digital age if we tried the recommendations. These include: (1) deleting your social media accounts, or most of the content history on your various accounts. (2) never signing into an app using your Facebook or Google account – which is the most convenient way and currently most people’s default. (3) Track down ‘data brokers’ (the companies who sell databases) and find the “opt out” button on each of their sites. Yeah right.

Another way to minimize your cyber footprint is to hit “deny” each time an app prompts an update, asking you permission to access your personal data. This seems sensible, until you realise that when you start denying one app’s access, it starts affecting the entire ecosystem of your smartphone. It’s like snapping one strand of a spider’s web: the whole web becomes unstable. Most people who have tried to deny access on apps have found, very quickly, that the ripple effect on the ecosystem brings more trouble than it is worth, so they are forced to just accept the invasion of privacy.

So unless you are prepared to live on a dessert island, in a bunker, with no form of internet communication, digital privacy is becoming a contradiction of terms.

Greta Garbo said that her famous quote, “I want to be alone” was a misquote: “I never said, ‘I want to be alone’, I only said, ‘I want to be let alone!’ There is all the difference”.

This now applies to our online lives. We’re concerned about the invasion of our privacy, but can’t function unless we give it up. The only thing we can do is trawl through the privacy settings of all the platforms we use, and hope that we plug enough digital leaks to be “let” alone.

By Dion Chang

About Dion 

Image credit: Ricky Montalvo

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