The death of frankness is one symptom of the wider dearth of ambient privacy in our daily lives.
The cheery Silicon Valley surveillance state that prevents us from speaking plainly in private is the same one that requires us to warn our children – or be warned by our parents – not to post things online that might harm employment prospects, and the same one that ensures we vet every utterance to make sure that it doesn’t have a meaning outside of the context in which it was presented.
There is no external agent mandating this self-censorship, at least not in the west: in China and Saudi Arabia, the same capacity is used as a tool of social control. In the UK and the US, “We’re using it to show ads. But the infrastructure of total surveillance is everywhere the same, and everywhere being deployed at scale.”
Another framing makes the difficulty of the problem clear. The problem is not data breaches: it is “data exhaust”, the information that is produced as a byproduct of our digital lives. The vast majority of emails are not useful after they are received (or, frankly, even before then). But we keep them because it is the only way we can keep hold of the one in a million that is. A record of every website you have ever visited is useful when you want to remember that killer quote you landed on a year ago,
The purpose of Twitter is not to produce a searchable database of all the times prospective MPs have used racial slurs, but that is a dataset the company now has.
The risks of this exhaust would be bad enough if they simply suppressed frankness, muted our freedom to express ourselves and provided a terrifying capability for authoritarian states to co-opt. But the problem is, the playing field isn’t level. There are two groups that float on, unconcerned by the death of ambient privacy.
The first are the angels: those whose innermost thoughts are already safely expressible, who never need to talk behind someone’s back because what they want to say is acceptable to deliver to their face, and who cannot have a throwaway comment come back to bite them because every comment is perfectly thought-out and expressed first time round.
Such people do not exist.
The second group are those who dismiss the very idea of consistency, who elevate rudeness to a virtue and undermine the entire concept of a shared reality. If you build your reputation on consistency and honesty, then a single hypocrisy can be ruining.