Privacy and sociocultural evolution


Where we stand

To date, there is no adequate view or model on how privacy will and is supposed to affect the near future of our society. On the one hand, the flow of information, noticed or unnoticed, is increasing at a virtually ungovernable rate. On the other hand, the public discussion is very likely to miss the critical points of importance and impact of privacy, because our view on the topic is inevitably based on experiences from the past. Let us face it - in one way or the other; it is certain that our future society will be based upon a flow of information which is not comparable to the past. The speed of the change of this one parameter alone predicts one thing: our observing, thinking, realizing and reacting is destined to come too late.

The flow of information is growing at a virtually ungovernable rate.

What privacy is

Our society as a complex adaptive system underlies sociocultural evolution. This evolution takes place in a multidimensional evolution space, where the amount of privacy is one of many dimensions. Evolution in this space will never finish - we do not need to hope for an ideal society. That would only be meaningful if the world we live in was static. This is not the case: the world is constantly changing, not least because of our own influence. Therefore the evolving system always has to look for its current best guess - a set of parameters which secures persistence in the currently effective situation. It is as simple as that. What does not survive will not be there any more tomorrow and will have no further role to play. The problem is that there is always a time delay between changed conditions in the evolution space and the reaction of the system. This is inherent to systems underlying evolution. The system randomly mutates and afterwards selects for better solutions. Hereby, the “mutation rate” determines how stable the system is, or in other words, how fast it can adjust to changes. Here it is where the trouble starts, if one parameter is changing very fast. All agreements, rules and laws underly this evolutionary process. And it has to be guaranteed, that they are static enough to efficiently regulate interaction of individuals in our society in the present situation, but flexible enough to follow changes at a required rate.

Privacy is needed to protect the "mutation rate" which fuels sociocultural evolution.

The desire for privacy is an ancient component of sociocultural evolution, which is to secure flexibility of the regulations the society agrees on. It gives individuals more personal freedom, because not every single step is under close observation and control. In the evolution of our society it is a kind of "mutation rate" which avoids that the system gets stuck in a set of non-ideal rules and it allows adjustment to changes. This view of privacy as a mutation rate illustrates one very important fact: the question is not if we need this mutation rate or not - per definition all evolutionary systems do - the question is how much of it is needed.

People often act as if they knew when access to information should stop and when privacy starts. At a closer look, it's not: privacy, yes or no. It is: how much.

How much privacy?

This "how much" is far more difficult to predict as we intuitively assume and the boundary between privacy and freely available information is much less distinct as the general perception would make believe. For example, the danger of discrimination may not increase monotonically with the amount of information which is available. Effects like the anonymity of the mass need to be considered, where more information may lead to less discrimination. We have to work on future scenarios where a lot more information is available than now – which may function in a substantially different way.

The underestimated factor: processing of information

Privacy is obviously not the only way to guarantee a well-tuned mutation rate. To adjust the amount of privacy our future society needs is necessary but not sufficient for a well progressing sociocultural evolution. The more privacy is lifted, the more important alternative ways for protection against discrimination get. How information is processed may be one of the most important factors in this respect. The amount of information which is available already today is absolutely useless without processing. This processing is a much more dangerous source for discrimination than the pure availability of most of the information. So we have to take care of that in time, that is synchronously with the increasing access to information. In many cases, to enforce this process may be more important than pursuing the protection of information. In the public debate about the topic of privacy, this point is often dramatically missing. To the Googles and facebooks: yes, I may give up some privacy, it helps me, it helps you. But you also must lift yours and share your processing.

There will be no simple answer to the question of where and how much privacy is needed. It is one parameter in sociocultural evolution which needs to be continuously adjusted to get the right balance between the abidance of rules and their flexibility. In the current discussion nobody seems to have answers that can come close. The trigger of our current discussions is the sudden, unpredicted and uncontrolled growth of the availability of information. This disturbs the balance in sociocultural evolution and is certainly something we have to worry about. On the other hand, the only counter movement seems to be the limitation of access to information; to not share things in social networks, to not use personalized search engines, to not send e-mails, ... In a world that has so much to gain from the flow of information, this cannot and will not be a solution. It only distracts from points which would be far more important to discuss. Instead, we have to take care that preconditions are in place, which keep the balance. We know some of these preconditions already, but we seem to fail to give them the attention they deserve.

Think beyond privacy: it may be imperative to regulate how information is processed, much more than how much information is available.