MIT8 panel tackles oversharing and the meaning of privacy

This year’s Media in Transition (MIT8) conference at MIT addresses question of the shifting nature of the public and the private, kicking off with a panel on oversharing.

The panel brings together Feona Attwood, Middlesex University (UK), David Rosen, author and Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard University, moderated by Nick Montfort.

Montfort introduces oversharing by talking about how people are voluntarily divulging information online that makes other people uncomfortable.

He asks why are people willing to share in this way, but also why we usually don’t think that we are the ones doing the oversharing.

One of the main threads of discussion is about the term, oversharing, itself, and whether it is an appropriate way to think about what people do.

David Rosen starts the discussion by suggesting a different approach. He argues that young people don’t experience it as oversharing.

For him, it is about considering what is personal privacy in the 21st century, especially for young people. Technology is a form of empowerment, particularly for young people.

Feona Attwood adds to the debate by stressing the historical factors that surround the issue. She frames it as thinking about who do people believe they are talking to at any moment, when a conversation can become a broadcast.

She adds that young people are under a tremendous weight of expectation that they should be able to cope with these things.

Oversharing, argues Jonathan Zittrain, may not be the right question to talk about oversharing

Instead we are at a point of inflection. We are seeing the mainstreaming of cheap processors and sensors so that we can stream everything we are doing all the time.

He notes how the uproar over Google Streetview and surveillance from a few years back seems so quaint.

“Everything is now a press conference,” says Zittrain. If you do anything unusual, it will be somewhere.

Rather than talking about the end of privacy, he wants to prompt a discussion on how to manage privacy when anything and everything can be recorded and shared by anyone.

Zittrain suggests that technologies that could control how far others can record and share our existence. Say, he argues, wearing a button that signals we do not want to be recorded.

‘We should be made more aware of the matrix of surveillance,” says Zittrain, and allow technology to negotiate and converse with the watchers.

Zittrain also raises the consequences of a surveillance society, where people don’t ethically calculate what they do, but instead only act ethically when they are on camera.

“People are flawed and we shouldn’t expect them not to be,” says Zittrain.