Transparency, Morality, and Why We’re Better Off Without Privacy

on Mar 12, 2010

An article on CNET today discusses how concerns for privacy are diminishing, especially in our ever-growing information age. In the work I do on human uniqueness, I’ve explored the evolutionary relationship of morality and transparency. It appears that this growing transparency (and thus decline of privacy) is a very good thing for our populations as a whole. A look at the human ethical sense shows why.

Shaped by natural selection, the human ethical sense is finely tuned to work in our especially social environment. Generally, the best self-serving strategy (and one that is indirect) is to contribute to your social coalition; directly selfish behavior is usually a bad strategy because of the strong coercive threat imposed by the rest of the group. The exception is when directly self-serving actions can go by unnoticed (privately). This would net a benefit for you but it wouldn’t be good for the others. Simply put, the greater the transparency (and the less the privacy), the better off a group is as a whole because this causes each individual to avoid the then inferior directly self-interested strategy.

A quote by federal judge Richard Posner in the CNET article illustrates this entire concept really well: “As a social good, I think privacy is greatly overrated because privacy basically means concealment. People conceal things in order to fool other people about them. They want to appear healthier than they are, smarter, more honest and so forth.” Issues regarding privacy are very evocative because of this; they involve an individual’s direct self-interest.

Our technology allows us to change the social norms of privacy. Individually it appears we’re getting comfortable with the decline of privacy. Between generations, there is no uncertainty since newer generations are better at adopting technology. There has certainly been friction (we’ve all heard of people getting busted by posting stuff to Facebook) but people will adapt to the growing transparency of their lives. The big question that remains: how so? Will our norms change to deem currently inappropriate behavior appropriate? Or will people commit less such inappropriate behavior? My best guess is that it’ll lean towards the former when there’s no social harm and towards the latter when it’s our collective interest that people change.

In the meantime, enjoy the ride. With the emergence of computers and internet in our pockets along with facial recognition technology, we’ll soon be able to learn all about a person by just looking at him. MIT is already on this. Perhaps we all better clean up our acts sooner rather than later.  And who knows, the world may very well quickly become a much better place.