There are benefits to publicness and they are worth fighting for

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By Alexandra Reid

Jeff Jarvis, a widely respected influencer in the media space, spoke at Third Tuesday Ottawa last week about his new book, Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live, the benefits of what he calls “publicness” and why it deserves just as much attention as privacy.

As a self-proclaimed “publicness advocate,” Jarvis says that “in our current privacy mania we are not talking enough about the value of publicness. If we default to private, we risk losing the value of the connections the Internet brings: meeting people, collaborating with them, gathering the wisdom of our crowd, and holding the powerful to public account.” Jarvis believes we have a “right and need to protect our privacy” – to control our information and identities – but also that the conversation and our decisions should include consideration of the value of sharing and linking. Jarvis’s intention is to work towards the protection of what’s public as a public good, and that includes the Internet.

In his presentation, Jarvis explained that privacy and publicness are like hot and cold and light and dark in that they depend on one another. There are some things that need to stay private so that we can be public safely, such as banking information, your work schedule and home address. However, Jarvis says that we can’t let the fear driven by privacy stop us from exploring the benefits of publicness. While safety is important, we shouldn’t manage our entire lives around the worst that can happen, says Jarvis.

‘Zuck’s Law’

In Public Parts, Jarvis explains that, in his opinion, Mark Zuckerberg follows his own social version of Moore’s law that decrees, “This year, people will share twice as much information as they did last year, and next year, they will share twice as much again.” Furthermore, according to Jarvis, Zuckerberg believes that “with the right tools and power in the right hands, the world will keep getting better,” and that’s why Facebook’s mission is “to make the world more open and connected.” Jarvis says that Zuckerberg is an “optimist who must believe in his fellow man, in empowering him more than protecting against him” and that he believes “in helping us share, which will make the world more public and lead to greater transparency and trust, accountability and integrity.” The master plan, stated by Zuckerberg, facilitated through social media and support by Jarvis is that, “In the future, things should be tied to your identity, and they’ll be more valuable that way.”

Privacy in history

In his quest for discovering how we should harmonize private and public activities to reap the benefits of both, Jarvis had to start at the very beginning and explore the historical circumstances under which privacy itself was invented and the reasons why we continue to perpetuate this idea. In his book, Jarvis writes that the “first serious discussion of privacy as a legal right in the United States did not begin until 1890” and that advances in technology were the catalysts.

In 1888, Kodak introduced its first boxy, portable “snapshot” camera, which could be carried anywhere and take pictures of anyone, which could then be sent into circulation by the mass media. These “kodak fiends,” caught taking photographs of the “good ladies of Newport,” President Roosevelt and others, sparked the discussion of privacy that would continue until this very day. However, Jarvis explains that “the key moment in the birth of American privacy law came in 1890, when Louis Brandeis, later a Supreme Court Judge, and Samuel Warren wrote a Harvard Law Review essay, “The Right to Privacy,” in which they proposed a new principle protecting “the right to be let alone.”’ However, as Jarvis points out, “publicness is protected in the Bill of Rights – that is the essence of the First Amendment – but there is no article assuring the right to privacy.”

Technology, such as the Kodak camera, Gutenberg’s printing press, microphones, telephones, recorders and now the Internet, perpetuate both the issue of, and our fears about, privacy. In his book, Jarvis writes,

Bad things could happen. It is prudent and wise to consider those possibilities and guard against the dangers, as our army of privacy advocates does. But those new technologies also present new opportunities, which we could miss if we are too busy building our bunkers. Presses print gossip but also art; Kodak cameras can embarrass yet enlighten; digital cameras power spying as well as grandparents’ Skype video calls; orbiting cameras equip spy satellites and Google Earth. In our messy tangle of wires and the frightening sparks shooting among them lays progress.

In his presentation, Jarvis explained the benefits that he believes come with publicness.

Publicness is beneficial in that it:

  1. Builds relationships
  2. Disarms strangers
  3. Enables collaboration
  4. Unleashes the wisdom (and generosity of the crowd)
  5. Defuses the myth of perfection
  6. Neutralizes stigmas
  7. Grants immortality…or at least credit
  8. Organizes us
  9. Protects us

Companies and government need to be public, too

And it isn’t just individuals who will benefit from publicness, says Jarvis. Companies, too, need to become more public to maintain the (ever more public) public’s trust. The case of Wikileaks, for example, shows us that the ability to hold a secret from the public is becoming harder. Furthermore, opening up a company to receive collaborative input from the masses, as in a public beta, can lead to massive improvement of a company’s products and services. Regarding government transparency, Jarvis says, “government must be transparent by default and secret by necessity.” To clarify, if the information can help others then it should be shared.

While there will be radical disruption along with endless ethical implications, Jarvis says it’s the wrong time to regulate the Internet and make it do what the world “used to do.” The Internet is an incredibly powerful tool and we are just beginning to understand the power it will have in our lives, says Jarvis. Our publicness on the Internet needs protection and only we the people of the Internet will be able to achieve this. Jarvis is calling for a discussion of the principles of an open society and an open net.

Let us start the discussion. What do you think should be the principles of publicness?

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