In 1949 George Orwell published his book ‘1984’in which he describes an oppressive society; a world completely controlled by the government, where every step you take is being registered and even thinking is restricted. Now,65 years later, it appears that it’s not Big Brother, but ‘Little Brother’ threatening our privacy. Armed with our advanced (mobile) equipment, which Orwell probably never dreamed of, we (consciously or not) give away our privacy. And many ‘Little Brothers’ make for one ‘Big Brother’, so that is scary. At least, if you were to believe Dave Eggers in his book ‘The Circle’.

Privacy is theft
Eggers describes in this book a world in the near future that is completely transparent. A world in which all knowledge is being shared and available at the hands of a very powerful company: The Circle. A company that resembles a combination of both Google and Facebook. Everything is being registered in the cloud and is public for everyone who has an account with Circle. “Sharing is caring!” is the slogan. And even: “Privacy is theft”. Because, as the company advocates, by keeping information private, you deny others and yourself the opportunity to learn from your information.

The book tells about Mae Holland, who gets a job with the Circle. She is very motivated, gets promoted quickly and occupies increasing important positions. She is fully engrossed by the company’s philosophy: everything should become public. The more you share, the higher your standing in the social hierarchy. The reader can tell; this is doomed to fail. Egger outlines an unpleasant view of a future in which privacy no longer exists. It reads as a powerful warning against the power of some big companies in this world.

I have heard there were people who got very scared while reading the book and in a panic deleted their Facebook-account. I didn’t feel that way. I felt annoyed, rather than alarmed. The protagonists naivety is at times shocking – in a way that makes the reader shout at the puppet show in vain (“No little Red Ridinghood! Don’t tell the wolf where you are going!” Oh. Too late.”). Besides that, the tone of the story is too patronizing for my liking and the book ends in a moralizing anticlimax. Even though the book touches upon a relevant social topic and it challenges you to rethink internet and privacy, the approach of the subject is, if you ask me, rather unilateral.
It is a fact that technology changes our world and that will irrevocably change the way we perceive privacy. But I think we should try to estimate the true value of the subject. How threatening is it, really? Aren’t we too focused on possible dangers?

On February 14th, 2014, Dutch newspaper ‘De Volkskrant’ printed a reaction from PhD student cognitive philosophy Fleur Jongepier to an article by Michael Persson. In this article he points out the possible dangers of Lifelogging. Lifelogging is an intense form of selfregistration by which a gadget takes a photograph twice every minute to show where you are and what you do. Jongepier says in her reaction that “reducing the ethical dimension of lifelogging in regards to privacy doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the phenomenon”.

Besides a potential breach of privacy, it is also an invitation to selfmanagement. Lifelogging, or in a broader sense, gathering and storing data about ourselves, gives us the possibility to attain better behavior. We learn from it. When we can look at ourselves from a third person perspective, similar to how others see us, often it shows us a different image of our selves than the one we had from our subjective perspective, in our memories and mind. Lifelogging gives us the opportunity to actively manage our life.

Not from fear
Does this weigh up to the potential abuse of private data? No idea. It is up to all of us to conduct this debate; we all are strewn about with this technology without a manual. I would like to plea passionately to not just approach the ethical discussion from a place of fear. What might help with this is to read ‘What technology wants’ by Kevin Kelly, in addition to ‘the Circle’.

By Martijn de Groot

Source: De Digitale Zorggids, 17 march 2014 (Dutch)