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Responses to Information

May 29th, 2014
future, publicy

More and more about us is becoming not just theoretically public but actually discoverable. Take location: it's always been public, observable by others as you walk through public areas, which means historically someone who really wanted to could follow you around and track your movements. This was resource intensive enough, however, that for practical purposes location was mostly private. As security cameras become more common, computers get cheaper, and software gets better, however, this could move from practically private to practically public. Less futuristicly, it used to be that if you got into the news there would be discussion for a short time and then it would ease as the media moved on. But now it will always show up when someone searches your name (except in the EU). Every year there is much more information available about everyone, and every year it's easier to access.

The general public response to this is negative. People imagine the current world with much more information available and see that not working out well. Did you write stupid things on the internet when you were a teenager? Now no one will hire you! Are there pictures of you on facebook holding alcohol? Watch out, if your boss sees those they'll fire you! While teenage stupidity and weekend drinking are common, expected, and normal, our current culture expects that we can keep them quiet and away from employers. So if you simply take current culture and add lots more information, you expect disaster.

Except culture can and does change in response to technology. Now that we can call people on the phone it's rude to show up at someone's house unannounced. If everyone is accepting alcohol consumption as standard in their private lives but in their work lives is pretending it doesn't exist, and then technology makes this division impossible, the likely outcome is not "everyone is fired" or "everyone gives up alcohol" but instead "employers stop caring".

This argument made me pretty optimistic about a coming transparent society: yes, there will be lots of information about me readily accessible, and yes some of it will reflect badly on me, but that will be true for everyone so it's not a problem. Employers, friends, and mates will all learn to ignore the stuff that doesn't matter, and all will be well. You don't need a right to be forgotten if no will care, and if you've done something serious enough that people do care, should you really be able to have that forgotten? [1]

One place where this prediction doesn't seem to be matching reality, however, is in employment of people with criminal records. A simple economic argument says records will only be used for hiring in as much as they predict job performance. If some employers are being excessive in their restrictions then others can step in and get the good workers they missed out on. Except instead we see a criminal record makes it much harder to find work, even for small crimes decades in the prospective employee's past.

Are there other cases where we can get a better sense of how people respond to the greater availability of information? It would be helpful to look at more examples than just criminal records.


[1] I already don't trust the future to keep anything private, and try to avoid doing anything I would be ashamed of if publicised. But not everyone does this, not everyone can do this, and none of us are perfect.

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