‘the social equivalent of the uncanny valley’

Thus danah at SXSW on Google Buzz and the current state of online privacy. (Update 2010-03-14: danah’s rough outline of her talk.)

I’d like to say that what I wrote back in 2007 is still relevant, but I’m not so sure, given that it’s based in part on what danah was saying in 2004, and goes back a lot further. All the think-pieces and keynotes and chin-scratching form a conversation that exists, for the most part, in parallel to the actual development process, the two only converging briefly in the aftermath of the latest fuck-up.

Whether it’s through the creeping featurism of Facebook or the impact crater left by yet another half-arsed Google project which treats people as inconveniently emotional data generators, I think it’s becoming clear that what’s possible from an engineering standpoint, given the available datasets and querying methods, pushes out the boundaries of what is considered socially appropriate in a post hoc fashion. The line for which Scott McNealy will be most remembered seemed absurdly arrogant back in the scrag-end days of cypherpunk; a decade on, Eric Schmidt says the same thing, follows it up with the Buzz debacle, and the comic response is tinged with bleak resignation.

The uncanniness of Buzz on launch, at least from my perspective, was that it summoned up how the world’s surveillance networks do their data profiling in buildings with blacked-out windows. The ‘you’ constructed for the benefit of the spooks is the algorithmic product of a group of programmers with time, data and processing power, but it’s no different in kind from the algorithmic product that is the ‘you’ of a credit report or a social networking profile or a straightforward web search. It’s not special any more; it just has heightened privileges.

Perhaps it’s time to accept a new set of base assumptions about online privacy: that coders set the rules, whether they know it or not; that most users accept the defaults, whether they ought to or not; that transgressions become norms, whether checked or not; and that those who research and advocate and educate will continue to fight the last battle, while those with the power to implement their advice most directly will ignore it until shamed into acting.

The alternative? Get over it, and work out what comes next.