Ephemeral conversation is dying.
Cardinal Richelieu famously said, “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.” When all our ephemeral conversations can be saved for later examination, different rules have to apply. Conversation is not the same thing as correspondence. Words uttered in haste over morning coffee, whether spoken in a coffee shop or thumbed on a Blackberry, are not official pronouncements. Discussions in a meeting, whether held in a boardroom or a chat room, are not the same as answers at a press conference. And privacy isn’t just about having something to hide; it has enormous value to democracy, liberty, and our basic humanity.
We can’t turn back technology; electronic communications are here to stay and even our voice conversations are threatened. But as technology makes our conversations less ephemeral, we need laws to step in and safeguard ephemeral conversation. We need a comprehensive data privacy law, protecting our data and communications regardless of where it is stored or how it is processed. We need laws forcing companies to keep it private and delete it as soon as it is no longer needed. Laws requiring ISPs to store e-mails and other personal communications are exactly what we don’t need.
Rules pertaining to government need to be different, because of the power differential. Subjecting the president’s communications to eventual public review increases liberty because it reduces the government’s power with respect to the people. Subjecting our communications to government review decreases liberty because it reduces our power with respect to the government. The president, as well as other members of government, need some ability to converse ephemerally — just as they’re allowed to have unrecorded meetings and phone calls — but more of their actions need to be subject to public scrutiny. But laws can only go so far. Law or no law, when something is made public it’s too late. And many of us like having complete records of all our e-mail at our fingertips; it’s like our offline brains.
In the end, this is cultural.
The Internet is the greatest generation gap since rock and roll. We’re now witnessing one aspect of that generation gap: the younger generation chats digitally, and the older generation treats those chats as written correspondence. Until our CEOs blog, our Congressmen Twitter, and our world leaders send each other LOLcats – until we have a Presidential election where both candidates have a complete history on social networking sites from before they were teenagers– we aren’t fully an information age society.
When everyone leaves a public digital trail of their personal thoughts since birth, no one will think twice about it being there. Obama might be on the younger side of the generation gap, but the rules he’s operating under were written by the older side. It will take another generation before society’s tolerance for digital ephemera changes.
November 24, 2008
The Future of Ephemeral Conversation
[What I fear will happen is that people, and politicians in particular, will fail to realize is that the society needs to compensate for the power differential and open up government while securing the individual and private organizations. They will think government “needs” to be private and that in order for the government to “protect” us they need to monitor our every word and move.
You can see this mindset in that so many people fear “large corporations” more than governments. They want the government to protect them from the corporations. They want more power for the government so it can further regulate businesses and individuals. They apparently are totally oblivious to the fact that an abusive corporation can be taken down in a few months by a massive boycott. Corporations don’t have the means to force you to buy their goods. On the other hand a government uses guns to take your money, your property, your freedom, and/or your life. Giving governments a monopoly on force and privacy is extremely poor social hygiene.–Joe]