Google Street View fear and loathing

Robert Creighton writes:

As happens in most places when Street View goes live, I predict the local media will run around the streets trying to find locals who are outraged at the “invasion of privacy” introduced by this technology. I will be watching Tom Murphy on CBC News as they try to stir up yet another “controversy.”

Worth noting that the cameras used in UK seem to be much higher resolution than used here.

red road-csNo idea what Tom will do, but in recent weeks, CBC has been conspicuously indulging the hoary tradition whereby old media condemn the moral decay promoted by attractive new-media competitors. See Nora Young’s Spark interview with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (here and here) deploring Google’s search feature, Ideas’ recent hand-wringing about teen sexual depravity caused by social marketing websites (a variant of which can be seen on CBC Newsworld), and the Globe and Mail‘s shocking discovery that people in the entertainment industry sometimes have sex with each other, even when they are not precisely equal in age or employment status.

I’m less sanguine about the British comparison. Police authorities in Britain really do conduct a staggering amount of real-time surveillance of private citizens, not a great thing imnsho.

Moral panic: computer memory is bad for you! – rebuttal

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, whose interview on Spark was the subject of a somewhat testy post on Contrarian yesterday, has returned fire.

I saw your blog entry on my interview with CBC and my book “Delete”. From your entry it is obvious that you have not read the book. [True.] That’s perfectly fine – except that you then move to render a flawed judgment on the book.

Viktor Mayer-SchönbergerTo start with, the example that I used in the interview is not about photographic memory, but about a biological condition of a very small number of people who cannot forget – or at least remember a great deal more than average humans. Photographic memory is very different – and susceptible to Dan Schacter’s “seven sins of memory”.

Contrary to what you seem to insinuate I have not blamed Google for Andrew Feldmar’s difficulties; rather I used his case to highlight the fact that with the help of the digital tools that surround us institutions and organizations can now – at very low cost – store and retrieve massive amounts of information about others. In the informational privacy literature this has been well described as potentially leading to power imbalances, which it is argued ought to worry us.

However, in my book – as well as in the interview! – I make clear that my major concern has to do with how humans perceive time, and place information in a temporal context; it is this central element, linked to research of cognitive psychologists that your blog entry misses.

Thus, your judgment that I am guilty of category error is simply incorrect – especially since the central message of the book is emphatically not that technology is to blame, or could provide a simple solution, but that changes in human behavior facilitated by information economics and technological change have made us forget remembering, and that it will take us humans to reset this balance.

In the spirit of fact-based discussion, perhaps you might be even interested in reading the book?

It’s true that I did not read the book, nor did I purport to have done so. My post explicitly responded to the interview, and mentioned the book only by way of introductory credentials.

I hope people will listen to the interview or download it; encouraging readers to do so was one purpose of the post. They can judge for themselves. To my ear, on two careful listenings, there was a clear tone of alarmed hand-wringing about a technological process that has got out of control. It strikes me as a subtle variant of the “Internet pedophiles will ensnare your kids” stories so favored by newspapers.

The ever tactful Nora Young also responded:

Nora Yound 1 s ccI think new technologies of communication do change the way we think, remember, and relate to one another.  I suppose I’m a McLuhanite in that sense.  I would say the same about the move from oral to written communication, for instance, so I don’t think it’s really uncharacteristic for Spark, or indeed, part of a moral panic.  More than that, though, what I love about Spark is that it’s an opportunity to air provocative ideas about technology, and hopefully inspire debate and dialogue, of which your post is an excellent example.

Moral panic: computer memory is bad for you!

The excellent CBC Radio show, blog, and podcast known as Spark has just posted host Nora Young’s  long interview with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Mayer-Schönberger believes cheap digital storage has encouraged us, often unwittingly, to store more information than is good for us. In the interview, he offers two examples:

  • Some people with photographic memory have trouble making decisions, because memories of bad outcomes from previous decisions paralyze them.
  • A Canadian psychotherapist, Andrew Feldmar, was permanently barred from entering the United States because a US border guard, using Google, discovered a 10-year-old article he had written describing his LSD use 30 years earlier.

Mayer-Schönberger follows a hoary tradition of moral panic that seems to greet every new communications technology. Carolyn Marvyn has documented the dire forecasts of moral depravity that followed the invention of the telephone. Prophesies of moral decay are often embraced by traditional media that feel (and probably are) threatened by the new technology, so I guess you could say that in interviewing Mayer-Schönberger, Spark is, at least in this perhaps uncharacteristic instance, fitting into this tradition as well.

Mayer-Schönberger is guilty of category error. He conflates memory with storage. Substitute the word “library” for “Internet,” and by his logic, we would soon start burning books. People with photographic memories may indeed have a problem with indecision, but that is a problem of human psychology, not library or Internet storage.

Dr. Feldmar’s story is a terrible one, but the problem lies in witless application of over-broad US immigration rules, not Google. It makes no more sense to condemn Google for this episode than it would to condemn the telephone or the newspaper, had they served as conduits for the guard’s information.

I think the idea of automatically deleting information (including photographs, articles, emails, etc.) because thier reappearance someday might harm us in ways we cannot foresee is chilling.

Spark will air an abbreviated version of Young’s interview with Mayer-Schönberger Sunday at 1.