Privacy and exposure

by Rob Tiller

How important is privacy?  I ask this question at a moment when I feel more than usually publicly exposed and vulnerable.  In recent times, I’ve come to think that for most of us the concern with privacy is exaggerated.  But exposure to the full glare of modern social media raises the question for me in a new way.

For most of us, or at least for me, the privacy question is usually more theoretical than real.  Most of the time, we’re private by default.  At least for non-celebrities, generally no one cares one way or the other about our (to us) valuable personal views and secrets.  Getting serious attention from one person, never mind the mass audience, doesn’t happen by accident.  It takes effort.

My operating assumption in recent years is that, for an individual, too much seclusion is more detrimental than too much society.  We are social animals; we wither and die without others of our kind.  And socializing means discarding some of our shell of privacy.  I’ve made it a rule to try sharing, rather than hoarding, when I have information or experience that could be helpful and of interest to others.

The possible benefits are:  helping someone, forming a human bond, making the world a little better.  The possible risks are:  risk of being wrong, of seeming ridiculous, of offending or upsetting someone.  And I do an informal cost-benefit analysis before I venture into the public arena on something controversial.  But I try not to let fear be determinative, and to give weight to the possible benefits even when they are somewhat speculative.

Some months back I, along with others, appeared in a video on open source software and intellectual property, where I took a position that challenged granting patents  for software.  Last week the video was posted on Patently-O, a prominent patent web site.  It generated dozens, if not hundreds of comments.  The vast majority of them were critical of my position, and some were critical in terms that were, shall we say, less than kind.  I was left with the firm impression that there are a lot of people who felt angry at me.

Being a target of a large amount of focused dislike is a new sensation for me.  It’s different from being disliked by an identifiable individual, when there is sometimes an understandable reason, and at any rate a finite problem.  It’s funny that it should matter, since I do not know these individuals, and I have never before relied on their respect and goodwill.  It may well be I would not care for their good opinion if I actually knew them.   Even so, it’s surprisingly bothersome.  It caused an uncomfortable feeling in my gut.  There’s nothing to be done.  It might be that with more experience one builds up defenses.  I’m hoping.