Your 2 cents: The price of living in the public eye

Advocates of civil liberties throughout the world lament the loss of privacy. Orwell’s 1984, they say, is just around the corner. And, of course, they are right. “Business Intelligence” is one of the current buzzwords in the corporate world. Associations with 007 come to mind. Do large corporations have the licence to kill? If not physically, at least the average citizen’s reputation and creditability?

Many critics go one step further: With the success of social networks, we ourselves are cooperating in exposing ourselves to the public more and more. The more personal data we present on the web, the more is known about us. And again, they are right. We have already seen a number of ugly incidents. In England, the police recently sent a helicopter to end a barbecue birthday party which was announced via facebook using the words “all night”. This appears to be a code word for a rave in certain circles.

In Austria, people get accused of organised crime because they show sympathies for animal-rights activists.

In both cases, people unwittingy became suspects because officials traced their online activites and linked the data to, otherwise unrelated, prior findings.

So shouldn’t we share opinions with the public? Should we jealously guard every bit of information about us? Even lie whenever possible?

Sure, there are moments when it’s not a good idea to divulge data. Data are a commodity, they have a price. I personally am very reluctant to register for any online service if I cannot be reasonably sure that the benefit I get from the service is worth the data I share with the provider. For the same reason, I haven’t got a single customer account card from any store. I’m just not willing to sell the information about my buying habits for the mere pennies that are usually offered. And, of course, people are right to be careful where there is a risk of phishing and similar activities.

And, yes, I have an email address that I reserve exclusively for friends and family, which has never been published on the web and which is therefore still spam free.

And yet, I’m not convinced this can be a winning strategy in all situations.

Firstly, there’s no way anyone can lead a modern life and stay completely below the radar. Whenever we do anything on the web, we leave a trail that can be traced by someone. Given that people tend to make up all kinds of ideas when they feel the need to fill in the blanks, this will almost inevitably lead to even more suspicion and misled accusations. If said people happen to be government officials, we have the recipe for Orwellian scenarios like the two mentioned above. Isn’t it better to communicate actively and openly than to constantly keep each other under surveillance?

Secondly, a democratic society needs the participation of the many, not merely to avoid the dominance of a few, but also because diversity among the participants ensures the quality of the discourse. (Read The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki for a perspicuous argument.) It’s not important that you have to say a lot, or whether your ideas are the best, or how brilliantly you argue. What counts is being part of the game,  throwing in your two cents. There’s simply no excuse for the silent majority to be silent anymore.

Thirdly, if there is inevitably a public image of you available, why not take active responsibility for that image? Since you are living in the public eye anyway, you need a spokesperson.

Of course, playing that role takes some skill. That’s why companies and celebrities usually have a specialist for that job. Chances are high that you and I cannot afford to hire someone. That makes ourselves the most likely candidates for the job, a job which starts today. As always, we can only acquire the necessary skills by doing it. From where I stand, getting in touch with the people out there, writing down our thoughts on things looks like a good first step. So that’s what I am doing.