Public Parts

Image of John Gapper

When Jeff Jarvis, a professor at City University of New York and digital enthusiast, was told he had prostate cancer, he did what came naturally. He wrote publicly about his surgery – and his ensuing impotence – on his blog.

Too much information, surely? “All parents embarrass their children. I’m undoubtedly worse,” he writes. Yet honesty was rewarded – not only was he lauded for bravery but he encouraged others to seek treatment and he got this book out of it.

Louis Brandeis, the Supreme Court judge, wrote in 1928 of “the right to be let alone – the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” Yet Jarvis values public exposure above being left alone: “Because I am public, I have made new friends and reconnected with old ones,” he writes. “I have received work and made money.”

He takes it to extremes, but Jarvis is one of many. The rise of social networks has allowed an explosion of information-sharing and exhibitionism. He records that 750m Facebook members share 30bn pieces of content each month, from thoughts to photos.

Maybe it is a passing phase – a utopian period of self-expression encouraged by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, for his own benefit – which will diminish when people grasp the implication of governments and society picking over their data trails. “Anything you put online is like a tattoo,” one internet entrepreneur observes.

It seems unlikely. No-one has forced millions to exchange personal details and thoughts, not only with their friends but “friends” they have never met. Yet they are drawn to the flame as surely as people line up to appear on reality television. “I like the attention,” Jarvis writes. “I’m human.”

Privacy advocates say this is a pact with the data devil – personal information may be exploited by companies for profit and abused by governments. Jarvis insists conversely that “publicness” has a financial and social value to individuals that has been underestimated.

Jarvis makes a solid case thoughtfully, drawing on a mass of work by philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas, the German theorist of the public sphere, to analyse the evolution of attitudes to privacy over centuries.

He notes that Thomas More praised transparency as a moral discipline in Utopia in 1516: “With the eyes of everyone upon them, [people] have no choice but to do their customary work or to enjoy pastimes that are not dishonourable.”

Jarvis’s first book, What Would Google Do? argued that enterprises big and small, across industries, should follow that company’s strategy. It was a bestseller, but I found it naïve in its enthusiasm for “openness” and for ripping up proven business models.

This is a superior work. Not only is it well researched and elegantly argued but he makes some original observations about how digital technology is changing the nature of human self-expression. It took three decades after Gutenberg’s invention for the potential of the printing press to sink in; small wonder that we are still sizing up the internet.

Ironically, social networks such as Facebook arrived after a bout of agonising about the atomisation of civic society in the west. “There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher was said to have asserted and, in Bowling Alone, Robert Putnamdetailedthe erosion of social institutions.

These networks have filled the gap left by the physical world. We justifiably mock what Esther Dyson, the writer and investor, calls “friend inflation” but they give their users psychological reassurance and self-expression – and commercial opportunity.

It may be that, for example, privacy worries in Germany about Google Street View, a service that provides images of the outside of homes, will fade just as did the outrage that followed the invention of the Kodak camera in the 1890s, when socialites were first confronted by paparazzi.

Most people, however, used to be in no danger of having their images widely published without permission. A combination of mobile phone cameras and name tagging on Facebook has now made it possible for any shot to be seen around the world, whether the attention is wanted or not.

“An age of transparency must be an age of forgiveness,” David Weinberger, the internet theorist, wrote. Jarvis was forgiven – even celebrated – for bringing word of his prostate, and the rewards for openness in liberal democracies mostly outweigh the risks. Once scandalous revelations have become grist to the gossip mill.

But it is easier to transform the technology people use than to change their nature. Most of us will keep some parts private.

The writer is an FT columnist

Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live, by Jeff Jarvis, Simon & Schuster, RRP£17.99

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