Well, it’s been a long time in coming, folks, but here’s the latest installment of my “monthly” feature column for the IGDA.
I had a weird experience with this column. Beyond weird. One might even call it… surreal. And it’s still going on; still hasn’t been fully resolved. May not be. Despite a strong desire to explain I think it might be best to leave it at that; suffice to say that what you read below is not the original version of this column, and while I’m perfectly satisfied with what’s there, the whole “road not taken” dilemma does resonate. Anyway, it’s a story that’s probably only interesting to me, so consider yourselves lucky to not be regaled with it. Enjoy the piece!
The Open World
By Matthew Sakey
June 5, 2011
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
Well, it looks like the Great PSN Breach of 2011 is winding down. Everyone’s talking about the intrusion as a single event, but we should also assess it in the larger, societal perspective of information as a concept: what “our data” meant yesterday, what it means today, what it might mean tomorrow. Personal details under Sony’s stewardship were exposed, creating risk. Beyond the immediate fallout of cancelled credit cards and changed passwords, what does an exposure like that mean, to us individually and as a connected society? Maybe – and bear with me here – maybe the day is coming when it means nothing at all.
The past year has been eye-opening when it comes to the vulnerability of information. Just before PSN, Amazon Cloud Services suffered a monstrous failure that FUBARed hundreds of small businesses and confused the whole Internet for the better part of two days. In early April, ne’er-do-wells made off with approximately one bazillion names, email addresses, and god knows what else from email marketer Epsilon. Just the other day someone liberated email archives and resumes from Eidos. All in all, exposure of data we want kept private happens pretty regularly.
Wikileaks garnered the most worldwide attention, carpet-bombing the internet with U.S. diplomatic cables. Most were just embarrassing, like us calling other world leaders fat and stuff; but others were really truly top secret, and revealing them put lives at risk.
For our purposes, the important thing about the Wikileaks story isn’t that it happened, rather, that it happened because of the world we live in now, a world where information is hard to protect, easy to disseminate, and never, ever forgotten. Wikileaks took advantage of that, and so did the PSN hackers.
In 1999, Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems pleased no one when he said: “You have zero privacy… get over it.”
What if we did? What if, societally, we just… got over it? Could we?
Christine Love’s fantastic don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story imagines a future in which a teen generation doesn’t even know what anonymity is, let alone cares about having it, which bewilders thirtysomething protagonist John Rook. The other characters are bewildered by his bewilderment. “You keep saying ‘Privacy,’” one says, “what a weird, antiquated concept to keep bringing up.” Violation of privacy means nothing to the students because there’s nothing to violate. don’t take it personally imagines a McNealyist society in transition – one generation is still freaked about the concept of privacy, the next has gotten over it.
In the real world no one is ever going to do that, at least not without a cultural shift of such immensity I can’t even begin to fathom the circumstances under which it could occur. Plus a totally transparent world is a better idea in theory than reality. The tangible benefits – that events like Wikileaks and the PSN hack wouldn’t happen because there’s no private data to steal – would be quickly outweighed by the fact that certain stuff needs to be private. Forget credit card numbers, there are very real physical dangers associated with the entire world knowing where you live.
If McNealy is right, though, that information is already exposed; we just refuse to get over it. With only your name, a motivated villain can find everything else there is to know about you. We depend on villains not being motivated, and on crowd-based anonymity: the chance of you being singled out among six billion are quite slim. Even so, with this kind of vulnerability, it seems like we’d all be a lot more zealous about what we reveal.
Instead it’s the opposite. You’ve got to admit that over the years people have taken an increasingly cavalier attitude to what sorts of information they’re willing to divulge. Most of it is pretty innocuous, with our Twitters and Facebooks and stuff, but we are unquestionably sharing more than we did in the past.
Some people are sharing a lot more. Browse Facebook and it’s just a matter of time before you find a dude whose profile picture shows him wearing a porcupine-quill loincloth and slurping tequila from the unshaven armpit of a 72-year old Lebanese stripper. Whereas once we’d keep our porcupine stripper photos hidden in the garage, many people now feel comfortable sharing them. While this does at times lead to consequences, those who do the sharing either don’t think about that or don’t care.
I can’t say if those people are a minority or a majority, but we’re all sharing more than we used to, even the most cloistered among us. To say I’m a “private person” is a galactic understatement. I don’t open my door when people knock. I wouldn’t have a door if they made houses without them. I don’t answer the phone. I don’t use Facebook or Twitter, partly because I’m not an interesting person but mostly because I don’t want to share that level of granularity with the world.
And yet I’m almost completely over the knowledge that friends and strangers alike know what I’m doing on Steam. I pretend I’m not home when the phone rings even though the caller can see perfectly well that I’m Xboxing Netflix. It used to bother me, but it doesn’t any more, demonstrated by the fact that I could turn a lot of those notifications off but don’t. I have evolved to not care that people know this stuff about me, when ten years ago I’d have gone out of my way to conceal it. What does it matter that somebody knows what I’m playing? Or that I’m not answering the phone? Leave a message.
The issue becomes not “what is private,” but what we choose to reveal versus what we choose to believe is hidden. The theft at PSN, the revelations of Wikileaks, the Epsilon and Eidos hacks – these are violations of our belief systems as much as they are violations of our property.
David Colman of The New York Times suggested that the “Anonymous” part of Alcoholics Anonymous is obsolete. For celebrities, maybe, but I’m not sure anyone else is ready for that, for all the same reasons we don’t publish our addresses or credit card numbers. McNealy may be right about privacy being nonexistent, and we are learning to accommodate that reality, but we’ll never “get over it.”
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