The think tank Demos this week launched UK Confidential, a collection of essays about privacy. It’s beyond huge, this issue — it spans every technological advance that’s ever happened, every element of government, every cultural trend. So many things make incursions into our individual privacies that I favor a “sod it, it’s over” approach, although if there’s one thing on which this collection is quite firm, it’s that fatalism doesn’t help.
One of the issues that really detained everyone, in a debate to mark the book’s publication, was that of alerting young people everywhere to the long-term impact of betraying one’s own privacy. Peter Bazalgette, former chief of Endemol (the makers of Big Brother), took British Conservative leader David Cameron as his typical early 21st century politician — Cameron is compromised by his student membership of the uber-posh Bullingdon Club. There’s a photo of him and his pals wearing top hats, and even though this isn’t illegal, well, it should be.
Nevertheless, men and women of Cameron’s age can still staunch the revelations about them; the odd photograph can be discreetly lifted out of circulation; drug questions can be answered with the famous “I’m allowed to have had a private life before politics in which we make mistakes” (my favorite part is that segue from “I” to “we” — it’s not exactly a royal “we”, more like “I’m afraid I had an evil twin, and he used to make mistakes. But now I’ve killed him”).
Anyway, Bazalgette moved on to what the politicians of 15 years from now will be faced with: from social networking sites, there will not be just one photograph of them but hundreds. If they’ve ever done a funny dance or taken cocaine, it will appear on YouTube as soon as they attain even modest celebrity. There will be no burying this stuff; we will either have to select our political class from the socially reclusive or suffer a new Westminster so uninhibited that they simply do not care what their adolescent selves got up to.
How, then, do we teach the young to guard their privacy? How do we attach a sense of value to this abstract commodity that, while they are young, has no value? Pragmatically, you might say, this is straightforward — you tack a module on the citizenship curriculum, and if they post a picture of themselves mooning at a goat on Facebook after that, then that’s their lookout.
The trouble with this is, first, there is something a bit laughable in any reigning generation trying to teach the one below it what the ramifications are of their relationship with technology.
Second, adolescents don’t expose themselves on social-networking sites by accident. Almost all teenage behavior is about owning the neutral physical space around you. Why else do they sit and shout at each other on buses?
It’s important to make a distinction between fashionable things that young people happen to like — Grand Theft Auto IV, for instance — and behaviors they engage in as a function of their youth and vigor. Facebook and MySpace may seem modern because they’re on a computer, but they nevertheless fall into the second category. So trying to inculcate discretion at a time when everybody is seeking exposure is like teaching abstinence at a time when all they want to do is have sex. Never mind the rights and wrongs of it — it doesn’t work.