Privacy: Your Choice of Dystopias

The ongoing kerfuffle about Google Glass is certainly one to follow if you’re at all interested in the notion of what constitutes privacy, and how much accommodation we’re prepared to make in order for people to have a reasonable “freedom of choice.” And I purposely put quotes around “freedom of choice” because that phrase in of itself is worthy of a book let alone a mention in a blog. It’s not always obvious to some people that one man’s freedom is another man’s restriction, and individual freedom is a social contract and not an absolute.


Democracy, as a political and social system, suffers great anguish and soul-searching in trying to constantly balance individual freedom and social responsibility. The law says I cannot smoke a cigarette in a public place. Why? Because the effects of second-hand smoke are alleged to be directly injurious to the health of other people. My “freedom” to choose to smoke is a “restriction” on many other people’s’ choice to live a longer life [1]. On the other hand, the link between CO2 emissions from cars and the potential death of everyone on the planet as a result of global warming is also seen by  some as a “restriction” on everyone’s right to live a longer life – but we don’t (yet) ban driving. Freedom is always a grim balancing act.

Google Glass – the wearable spectacles that include both a tiny screen for viewing and a camera for capturing images – represents another stage in the constant struggle to determine how “free” we are to do what we want in a diverse society. As with all technology, it’s not the thing in of itself that is the issue but its application in the real world. For what it’s worth. my experience using Google Glass has left me feeling a little “so what” in that there’s nothing about the use of this tech that yet makes me want to perch the glasses on my head for longer than a few minutes. It’s “interesting” but not “compelling.” [2]

On the other hand, the social questions that the use of Google Glass raise it much more interesting – and compelling. You don’t have to be paranoid or a conspiracy theorist to be concerned about the privacy issues related to the fact that in principal, there’s a piece of technology here that could be worn by millions and millions of people, which could be recording images of the world – including you, dear reader – that can be shared with anyone. We know, of course, that folks with smartphones can already do this but that isn’t an argument for accepting a more widespread and covert method of collecting pictures.

Which brings me to a quick detour into the idea of a choice of dystopias [3]. Back in 1931, Aldous Huxley wrote his classic novel Brave New World about a future in which the population are controlled by drugs, psychology, and technology. Some 17 years later, George Orwell wrote his great work, 1984, which has a different future where people are controlled by a dictatorship based on power and manipulation. Both of these are called dystopias [4] – the opposite of utopias or perfect worlds. Although for many people, the latter vision is frightening because it is so overtly violent and marked by a political dictatorship – a form of government that is so antithetical to the democratic sensitivities of North America and Europe – the former is far more scary because it is a vision of voluntary acquisition to control rather than a seizing of control by force. In 1984, people don’t read books because they are banned and burned by the state, but in Brave New World, they don’t read books because they no longer want to.

Huxley’s future is the one into which it is much easier to slide. If the President of the USA decided to impose his or her will on the populace by turning the troops loose on dissenters and creating a “secret police” to spy on everyone, there would be some resistance. In fact, there would likely be lots of resistance. It’s a feature of any dictatorship that those in power are constantly under threat from dissidents, and the people might be acquiescent but they are still aware that they are under the yoke of tyranny. But not so in a brave new world where freedoms are not taken but given away, piece by piece. And there are two phrases that are used all the time to encourage people to do this; “It’s for the safety of the people” and “It’s for the welfare of our children.” The latter is, to me, the more egregiously hypocritical in that it seeks to turn dissenters into seemingly uncaring and callous child haters.

So how unreasonable is it to install cameras in malls to prevent child abductions?[5] How unreasonable to have them installed along roads to protect public safety? How unreasonable is it to have cameras in ATM’s to prevent theft? All of these things are now a feature of everyday life that we were never “asked” to approve but were simply added, slice by slice, to the point that it is now possible to not only prevent abductions (possibly), catch speeders (and fine them), and photograph debit card thieves (who always seem to wear hoodies), but for law enforcement and hackers to track an individual’s whereabouts. [6]


We have already surrendered a level of privacy by letting this happen. A 2011 report said that the UK had over 1.85 million cameras across the country, which works out to about one camera for every 32 people. That’s a lot of eyes. Yet this has now become a part of the norm – knowing that you might be being watched or recorded. Of course, supporters of CCTV will always trot out the tired cliché of “but if you’re innocent, what have you to worry about?” I worry about the interpretation of “innocence;” I worry about who is making that call; and I worry about how my non-criminal behavior can be tracked and shared with people.

It’s 3:00 am and I’m drunk and walking home. I cross the road when there’s no traffic in sight. I take a pee against my front fence (hey, we’ve all been there, right!). Finally I get through the door and go to bed. Two days later there’s a knock at the door and I’m being charged with public intoxication, jaywalking, and indecent exposure. Now ask yourself – is that just? I guess if I’d stopped for a minute to have a quick smoke within 25 feet of a school I’d have another charge dropped on top!

So remind me again about how “innocence” inoculates me against being sanctioned in some way by “The Others.”

It’s not, therefore, much of a surprise to find that there are people who find the idea of Google Glass becoming a significant part of society somewhat troubling. In a recent poll by Toluna, a market-research firm, 72% of Americans put privacy concerns at the top of the list for why they won’t be wearing Google Glass. And in the UK, a blog post by the government’s data privacy watchdog agency, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) says that use of Google Glass for anything other than “the collection of personal information for domestic purposes” could lead to prosecution under the Data Protection Act. It’s also worth noting that we already have the derogatory word glasshole used to describe wearers of this technology, and glassing-out to describe prolonged staring while wearing the glasses.

Perhaps it’s true after all that there is no longer any such thing as privacy. In our rush to make the world safer, nicer, and easier, we’ve allowed the genie to slip out of the bottle and we can’t stuff him back in. Or maybe we worry too much, like the writer of this passage:

Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ” what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.”[7]

The surprise – this is from a Harvard Law Review paper written in 1890! Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

[1] It’s worth mentioning here that I don’t, and never have, indulge in smoking. For the life in me I’ve never seen the value in setting fire to rolled up plants and sucking up the burning smoke in to my lungs. However, I can empathize with those who do, bearing in mind that I frequently drink alcohol – a drug that, in contrast to nicotine – is currently legal. My vaguely Libertarian sensibilities therefore generally come down in favor of acknowledging an individual’s right to smoke, even though I don’t do it myself. And provided it’s done in an environment that doesn’t significantly damage my health, so be it. But should the government ever decide to make alcohol illegal, they’ll have to pry the Whie Russian from my cold, dead hands.

[2] One of the “reasons” put forward by proponents of Google Glass or body-mounted cameras is so that you can record your life. If that’s the case, at what point do you actually stop and look back at what you’ve recorded? Logically, your life is halved because you need to spend 50% of your time recording it and leave another 50% open for you to watch what you’ve recorded! And if you’re response is that you’ll only watch the best bits of your life, how much time are you then going to want to spend editing you thousands of hours recorded data?

[3] This sounds to me like a perfect names for a band, or an album, or even a book. I’ll therefore take the opportunity to copyright the phrase right now as “A Choice of Dystopias” just in case.

[4] The word was coined by Sir Thomas More as the title for his 1516 novel Utopia about a place with a perfect social and legal system where everyone is happy. He took it from pieces of Greek: eu- (εὐ) meaning “good” and “topos”(τόπος) meaning “place” i.e. a good place. You might think there was an actual Ancient Greek word εὐτόπία but apparently not! A good example of an invented Greek word 😉

[5] On a side note, it’s always struck me that if the answer to school shootings is to arm teachers and install metal detectors, we’ve never really understood the question in the first place. I suppose once we can sneak in “owning your own tank” under the cover of the 2nd amendment, then even that solution will need revising!

[6] On the trivial and personal side, because of the ease of online banking – and the speed at which transactions can be made – my wife often knows exactly where I’ve been and what I’ve spent before I get home from a night out. Sure, she can’t track the dollar bills I’ve slipped into a stripper’s garter but if I use my debit card to pay for the food and drink tab, my night at “Naughty Nancy’s Nudey Saloon” is easily tracked! It also makes it really hard to buy anything as a surprise because we have a joint account so she sees instantly if I buy something – or of I take out cash to buy it. It’s a minor thing but it is, in fact, just one more slice taken out of the privacy salami.

[7] Warren, S. D., & Brandeis, L. D. (1890). The Right to Privacy. Harvard Law Review, 4(5), 193-220


3 responses to “Privacy: Your Choice of Dystopias

  1. I love this! I’ve been pondering these very issues a lot lately. Well done, Dudes!

    • Thanks for taking the time to read it. That balance between “safety” and “freedom” is a perennial concern, whether it’s because of Google Glass or motorcycling without a helmet or even whether kids should have cell phones in the classroom (for “safety,” of course).

  2. Pingback: Scribble, Scribble, Scribble | The Speech Dudes

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