When People Believe They’re Both Responsible for Everything and Incompetent at Everything, Privacy Will Die

Imagine driving down a street and hearing impatient honking behind you. Annoying, right? But there might be extenuating circumstances. Perhaps there's a woman in labor in that car. Or someone who could miss her plane because of all the traffic from that accident two miles back. On the other hand, that honker could have reasons that make him more annoying than you'd expect. Maybe that driver is cheating on a life partner and rushing to get home so an alibi will hold up. Maybe it's a car full of goons out to collect protection money for a guy named Ice Pick Willie.

The way life is currently organized, those details are unknowable. So the reasonable assumption is that anyone honking at you has an average sort of motive. This is a sound application of the Copernican principle, which holds it most likely that there's nothing special about the place and time in which you are observing anything. So whatever you're perceiving is probably in the average range for its type. The driver behind you is unlikely to be 4 feet tall, and equally unlikely to be 7 foot 2. Analogously, that driver is unlikely to have an extremely good or extremely bad reason to badger you.

An alternative to the Copernican approach to others is, of course, to use stereotypes. But a stereotype like "Southerners are casual about time" or "old people are forgetful" is still a rough generalization, in which you invoke (supposed) facts about a category of people to explain the behavior of an individual. You have to do this because you don't know enough about the person in front of you and their motivations of the moment.

This lack of information about individuals and their circumstances is a veil of ignorance, hiding us from each other. And that veil has been, I would argue, a good thing. Unless we're invoking a bad stereotype, the veil causes us to see each person who imposes on us as an equal, and to treat his motives as more or less valid, and to refrain from judging him.

What happens, though, if the veil of ignorance is removed? If it becomes possible to know, in real time, scores of relevant details about what made the person honk? This is the prospect raised by the Internet of Things, that near-future Web over which phones, cars, highways, fitness trackers, offices and stores will all talk to one another. Soon, when the IoT is part of daily life, as Daniel Burrus noted here, concrete in a bridge will detect ice and alert your car to the hazard. Then the car "will instruct the driver to slow down, and if the driver doesn’t, then the car will slow down for him."

In other words, the main subject of all this digital talk among things will be the humans they serve and monitor. I think it's unlikely that we'll let them keep all that information to themselves. If you have a woman in labor in your car, the car will know—and so, if you are idling in the way, will you. On the other hand, if that person behind you is just worried about getting to lunch before they seat someone at her favorite table, then you'll know that too. And you'll judge your fellow human accordingly.

What brings this to mind is the changing semantics of cars bashing into one another. As Matt Richtel reports here, traffic-safety advocacy groups are campaigning to rebrand the "car accident." That term invites people to think that colliding with another car or plowing into a ditch are events that just happen, like lightning strikes or heavy rain. In fact, almost all car crashes are caused by people's decisions. Driving while drunk, driving while texting, driving while asleep and other choices are the cause of "accidents," which kill some 38,000 people a year on American roads.

So police departments around the U.S. have been replacing the blank veiling concept of "accident" with the word "crash." The authorities want to shift to a concept that nudges people to see drivers as responsible for what happens to them. In this, they are like their colleagues elsewhere in government, who are trying to reclassify other experiences that people used to see as fate. Heart attacks and diabetes don't just happen, we're told—they're the consequences of choices we make about food and exercise. Catastrophic global warming isn't something that's occurring by accident; we're making it worse by flying and wasting electricity. If you're poor in old age, don't blame capitalism—you were supposed to be saving for retirement!

You might think that this trend will encourage people to take more responsibility for their own conduct, and thus help them not only to avoid accidents but to see themselves as empowered agents of their own lives and authors of their own fates.

I think, though, that the long term consequences will be the opposite.

This is because today's message of individual responsibility coincides with an equally powerful message of individual incompetence. The psychologists who have the attention of our media and our leaders are the ones who say that people make mistakes all the time, about everything: what to eat, what to buy, what to fear, what to plan for. Driving is no exception: One of the most commonly cited justifications for the coming age of self-driving cars is that way fewer people will die on the road. Driving, like so many other skills, will soon be—if it is not already—an activity that machines are better at than humans.

When you combine the message of individual responsibility with the message of human incompetence, the only consistent stance left is that people ought to let the machines do the work. The responsible thing to do is to cede control. Let the cars drive themselves, and thousands of people will live, who would have died at the hands of human drivers.

But when we cede control, we give up information. The controlling system needs it to make the decisions we once had to make. So, for example, an effective transport system will need to know if you're going to the hospital with a woman in labor, or just worried that they'll run out of Chunky Monkey at the ice cream parlor. And once the machine knows it, why should it keep that information a secret?

So the Internet of Things is likely to shred the veil of ignorance that forces us to see all claims on us as equal. In any given confrontation, instead of assuming every person is an average human being with average reasons for his behavior, we will be able to tell the good reasons from the bad, the Samaritans from the selfish cheaters. And another layer of privacy—the privacy to decide for yourself how much of a hurry you should be in, how much you should impose on others—will be gone. When we combine the presumption of accountability with the presumption of incompetence, we're signing up for a transparency that is so complete, and so different from life today, that we can scarcely imagine the world we are creating.

When People Believe They’re Both Responsible for Everything and Incompetent at Everything, Privacy Will Die

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