Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Walls and thresholds – physical metaphors at Hyper-public

Urs Gasser, the director of the Berkman Center, opens the Hyper-public conference with a discussion of a privacy ruling in his native Switzerland. Swiss data protection law has led to a ruling regarding Google’s Street View product. To operate in Switzerland, Google must blur the faces of anyone caught in a photograph as well as license plate numbers. But they have to go further and eliminate any identifying information, like the skin color of people standing in front of shelters, retirement homes, prisons, and schools. The ruling also prevents Google’s cameras from looking into gardens and back yards, or into any space it’s not possible for a pedestrian to see.

The ruling, Gasser argues, indicates the complexity of delineating between public and private. It points to the need for a nuanced definition of privacy, including privacy in a public space, like in streets or libraries.

The design choices we make have multiple effects. They’ve got enabling effects – there are many services built atop Google Street View. These services can have leveling effects – Google’s product lets people who are physically immobile explore cities. And design choices have constraining effects. As Larry Lessig has famously observed, code is law – the technical constraints can prevent you from taking certain actions.

We made need corrective mechanisms for design choices. There’s a role for social norms – we might consider the fact that a significant percentage of Swiss inhabitants are using Street View, which might provide implicit support for design choices. And we need to consider how norms are changing – are changes like the practice of offering a “public apology” for actions on Facebook an appropriate response to straying across legal or normative boundaries?

Law tends to expect perfection – Swiss law doesn’t consider it sufficient that 99% of faces are blurred by Google’s technology. The law requires 100%, whether or not it’s realistic. To handle the challenges of privacy and technology, we need a feedback system that incorporates tech, law and user behavior.

Judith Donath is the lead organizer of the conference, and she reminds us that there’s no shortage of examples of the tension between public and private brought forward by technology. We can consider Google Street View, or just Anthony Weiner’s involuntary public exposure on Twitter. Technology is having an effect on what’s public and private space, whether you opt into social media systems or simply walk down the street. Ephemeral behavior becomes a permanent record.

Societies evolve norms around privacy. We don’t join other people’s conversations at a restaurant, and if we listen in, we try to disguise our behavior. In traffic jams, people forget their cars are transparent – they get dressed and pick their noses, and we try to look away. Those norms allow for privacy in public spaces. In law, on the other hand, privacy sometimes seen as a goal in itself, not just a means to an end.

We may be reaching a point of very high societal privacy in the US. We’ve got privacy in our dwellings to an unprecedented degree, and the possibility of extreme privacy that comes from moving away from where we grew up. Through a market economy, is possible to live in ways where you no longer rely on tight networks of people to provide essential services like child care – you can live your life in personal isolation and still be clothed and fed.

Our behavior in public has to do with who is watching us. Are we being watched by marketers who want to turn us into consumption machines? By a repressive government? That doesn’t make for an especially cooperative society. On the other hand, at the extremes of privacy, it’s hard to have society at all.

Jonathan Zittrain leads the first discussion – he suggests that this privacy conference is different from other privacy conferences because we’ve got a mix of people in the room, people who often think about these issues, and those who rarely encounter it. Our goal is to come to a language where we can all understand.

His first panelist is computer scientist Paul Dourish of UC Irvine. He suggests we consider privacy not as something we have, but as something we do. We tidy up before the cleaning lady comes, we might re-stack our magazines, putting Oprah on the bottom and the Atlantic on the top before people come to visit.

Privacy is also a function of group identity. There’s information that’s public within a group, and being in a family or a group requires a compromise in terms of privacy. We might think of this in terms of Michael Warner‘s concept of publics and counterpublics. There are
multiple publics that emerge in terms of address and encounter with media objects – there’s media aimed at people like me and other people’s media, which leads to other publics.

And there are infrastructures, networks that provide new ways of connecting people. They’re reusable and interchangeable – if we cannot plug in our computer into a plug in a particular place, that’s not infrastructural. These infrastructures make new relationships with spaces possible.

He offers a provocative example: how sex offenders navigate in California while constrained by GPS-enabled tracking anklets. How do you think about moving through a space if you can’t come within 2000 feet of schools, parks or swimming pools? It turns out that you simply can’t navigate the world at this scale. Instead, you end up thinking in terms of safe towns you can be in, and safe areas you can wander around.

What does it mean to be connected to other people in online and offline spaces? It’s about accountability to each other. The movements of parolees aren’t just their responsibility, but those of parole officers who need to be accountable for the complex, detailed log of where parolees go. Those officers need to account both for their behaviors and the vagaries of the tracking system.

Zittrain wonders whether we might consider an iPhone ap that solves “the travelling sex offender problem”, even as an art piece that displays how difficult it is to move through real spaces.

Laurent Stalder, an architecture professor at ETH Zurich, has recently been studying two topics: the emergence of the English House as it entered German culture in the 1890s, and the nature of the threshold. Privacy is associated with enclosed spaces, he tells us. The desire for intimacy and protection, enclosed on all sides, reached its apogee with the Victorian house.

Since then, we’ve seen a reconsideration of the wall as a limit between interior and exterior space. We can think of the “unprivate house”, like Philip Jonson’s glass house in New Canaan CT, a house which has the state of being permanently accessible. On the one hand, we have open houses – a thresholdless space, a seamless environment – and on the other hand, spaces that are inherently about control: airports, laboratories.

The traditional door was a clear boundary between public space and complete privacy. The emergence of different threshold devices has fractured that space. These devices are anthropomorphic – they shape our activities by prescribing certain behaviors. And we see rituals associated with thresholds: cleansing, absolution. We need to think through the difference between a border and a threshold – a border can be closed, while threshold is a neutral space, and a contested one.

John Palfrey, vice-dean of Harvard Law School and librarian of the Law Library, suggests that it’s simply not true that young people have given up on privacy. We care about it in particular contexts, and understanding those contexts is critical to understand our practice. Unfortunately, we may not be very good at figuring out how to correctly navigate these new spaces.

Palfrey suggests that the design of the fourth amendment – which determines, when the state wants information about you, what are the rulesets? – doesn’t always work well in the news spaces we’re building. When we build a space like Facebook, we’ve not done the hard work about those permissions and tradeoffs.

We need to consider some of the basic design notions behind systems of internet and social media. The “check in” applications like Foursquare that seem to thrive are those that are interoperable. We want to check in once and have it posted in all systems simultaneously. But given the free flow of that data, we need to consider breakwalls and safe harbors, situations where the data can be slowed or stopped. What do those breakwalls look like in those highly interoperable systems?

Zittrain suggests that both Palfrey and Stalder are considering thresholds, limits and interfaces between space. Palfrey points out that designers generally want lower walls, but there are costs associated with those low walls – we try to keep walls low at Berkman, to maximize participation, but there are literal costs associated with it.

Zittrain reminds us that our colleague Charlie Nesson used to life stream, recording the conversations he had. This was a step towards moving into a world of 24/7 streaming, wearing microphones and cameras at all times. He wonders what happens when we merge this data stream with a market economy that allows us to surveil the world by purchasing parts of people’s lifestreams.

Jeff Jarvis wonders how architectural innovation on the web is changing our understanding of public and private spaces, offering the analogy of the hall in the 19th century home as introducing the possibility of privacy in a bedroom. Stalder suggests that private and public spaces aren’t changing much in the private home, but ways we go inside and outside, potentially through the internet and through remote cameras, may be changing. Dournish reminds us that these aren’t just spatial notions (inside/outside, public/private), but social notions. Not everyone had privacy in English homes – it was very different upstairs than downstairs. He suggests that not only are we still trying to figure out boundaries in cyberspace – we’re figuring out them in real space as well.

Zittrain wonders whether the reformulation of ideas of public and private are changing more quickly now than in years past. We build buildings and they last for many years. Virtual spaces can change much more quickly. When we build a house for someone, we know who’s the customer. It’s far less clear who’s the customer for Facebook, the user who gets it for free, or the advertisers who want access to you. How do we think of privacy in these reconfigurable spaces?

Facebook today is not the same Facebook as yesterday, not just because of Facebook’s decisions, suggests Dournish. We reshape the space as well. Reconfiguration, he argues, is sociological and technological.

Nell Breyer asks Stalder to clarify the nature of a threshold in the context of cyberspace – what’s the purpose of the threshold in a virtual space? He explains that it’s about a double meaning, a unity of space between the public and private. Breyer pushes forward and wonders what we lose with the ability to “apparate” in digitial space, appearing deep within a space, avoiding the engineered transition. Zittrain wonders whether we might see a visual representation of where other people are entering into a website from.

Dournish points out that webmasters actually have all this information. This might be a reminder that we need to be careful about overusing spacial metaphors – we maintain multiple windows, we’re in different places at the same time. We need to recognize that part of the power of digital spaces is the dehistoricizing nature of new spaces. We need to consider the creative opportunities for reconfiguring space.

David Weinberger offers the observation that physical architecture is always local. The web is global, and the norms of privacy, which had been intensely local, are now being forced to interact with this truly public space. Is there any hope we’ll come to global privacy norms that we can rely on?

Kenneth Carson suggests we think about private and public spaces in terms of the creation of community. He wonders how we change the nature of community in public and private spaces.

An offer is posed to David Weinberger’s question: privacy actually begins with the invention of the chimney – it’s possible to have an enclosed space and heat. But this didn’t exist for the poorest people. In general, we’ve built spaces that eliminate privacy, like the factory, for those who are disadvantaged.

A woman who introduces herself as “a lowly intern” suggests we consider spaces where people use technologies, not just the virtual spaces: cybercafes versus the use of computers in a private home. That spacial aspect can shape how we encounter these spaces. How do we feel about using Facebook in the library? In a repressive nation where government officials might be looking over our shoulder?

Dournish tells us about work one of his students is doing on World of Warcraft in China. Many players come into public spaces to play together, and their discourse about a game, which they know is American, is very Chinese – they consider it a Chinese game because it places huge weight on Chinese values like teamwork. There won’t be global agreements in part because we can have encounters that are inherently local.

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