Two Thoughtful Essays on the Future of Privacy

Paul Krugman argues that we'll give up our privacy because we want to emulate the rich, who are surrounded by servants who know everything about them:

Consider the Varian rule, which says that you can forecast the future by looking at what the rich have today -- that is, that what affluent people will want in the future is, in general, something like what only the truly rich can afford right now. Well, one thing that's very clear if you spend any time around the rich -- and one of the very few things that I, who by and large never worry about money, sometimes envy -- is that rich people don't wait in line. They have minions who ensure that there's a car waiting at the curb, that the maitre-d escorts them straight to their table, that there's a staff member to hand them their keys and their bags are already in the room.

And it's fairly obvious how smart wristbands could replicate some of that for the merely affluent. Your reservation app provides the restaurant with the data it needs to recognize your wristband, and maybe causes your table to flash up on your watch, so you don't mill around at the entrance, you just walk in and sit down (which already happens in Disney World.) You walk straight into the concert or movie you've bought tickets for, no need even to have your phone scanned. And I'm sure there's much more -- all kinds of context-specific services that you won't even have to ask for, because systems that track you know what you're up to and what you're about to need.

Daniel C. Dennett and Deb Roy look at our loss of privacy in evolutionary terms, and see all sorts of adaptations coming:

The tremendous change in our world triggered by this media inundation can be summed up in a word: transparency. We can now see further, faster, and more cheaply and easily than ever before -- and we can be seen. And you and I can see that everyone can see what we see, in a recursive hall of mirrors of mutual knowledge that both enables and hobbles. The age-old game of hide-and-seek that has shaped all life on the planet has suddenly shifted its playing field, its equipment and its rules. The players who cannot adjust will not last long.

The impact on our organizations and institutions will be profound. Governments, armies, churches, universities, banks and companies all evolved to thrive in a relatively murky epistemological environment, in which most knowledge was local, secrets were easily kept, and individuals were, if not blind, myopic. When these organizations suddenly find themselves exposed to daylight, they quickly discover that they can no longer rely on old methods; they must respond to the new transparency or go extinct. Just as a living cell needs an effective membrane to protect its internal machinery from the vicissitudes of the outside world, so human organizations need a protective interface between their internal affairs and the public world, and the old interfaces are losing their effectiveness.

Posted on April 14, 2015 at 6:32 AM • 49 Comments


Sancho_PApril 14, 2015 7:51 AM


“want to emulate the rich” doesn’t fully fit:
We only want some advantages of being rich - but that’s hardly news.

That wouldn’t be a problem in our life.
When embarrassing details and nude picts of everybody are in the public it doesn’t matter when yours are there, too.
When THEY say “transparency” they mean more segregation from “us”.
Gov will never be transparent.
This is the poor / rich or precisely the elite / plebs conflict.

Martin WalshApril 14, 2015 8:13 AM

They're all wrong - guaranteed. Analysis of what's happening is one thing, but predictions are impossibly wrong. Library shelves are full of books from decades past in which extremely knowledgeable people wrote about what's to come. That is, if they haven't all been thrown out. A single precipitous technological advance no one could have predicted, will throw a wrench into all of it. Wars of a different kind are coming. If there was no privacy then why is attribution so hard, if not impossible? If anyone could predict what happens next, then why couldn't they tell us two years ago where we'd be today?

Steve ScottApril 14, 2015 8:46 AM

Transparency is one aspect of global and instantaneous communication. But I think that comes from communication alone, not from a loss (or lack) of privacy. What was once "public", yet limited to the village, parish, or region, is now public to the global village. I.e., Global transparency due to connectedness.

Privacy must be equated with both liberty and access to solitude. In psychological terms, these fit in Maslow's Hierarchy at the safety level. Think of solitude as the ability to go for a walk alone in the forest and not be watched, monitored, or tracked. The access to solitude is the last vestige of privacy, the one particular aspect of privacy that should never be wavered from.

In a world where we don't respect privacy in terms of solitude is a world where our basic human psychological needs are not met.

AlexApril 14, 2015 9:02 AM

«The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class».

FPApril 14, 2015 9:07 AM

The rich have minions that they trust, else they have powerful tools to fight those that abuse their trust.

Also, the rich very definitely value their privacy, most importantly from us.

BoppingAroundApril 14, 2015 9:28 AM

Sancho P,
> Gov will never be transparent.
That's just one facet. There is a bigger problem looming — whether you will be able to enforce your rights, not just stand there and watch helplessly as the adversaries continue to do what they have been doing but now openly.

Then there's indifference. Nick P can drop a word or two on that, I think. He did already a day or two before, and there's prolly more to that. I don't have the links, sorry.

Finally I remind myself of the old Chinese strategies of fooling your enemies:

Which leads me to the idea that ultimately this 'transparency' will be a change of battlefield. Not a victory for us or the other side although both will suffer casualties.

Steve Scott and Martin Walsh have voiced substantial ideas too.

BoppingAroundApril 14, 2015 9:40 AM

Update: I should have read the second essay prior to posting as it exactly covers the battlefield change.

Martin WalshApril 14, 2015 9:42 AM

The common refrain "privacy is dead" is nothing less than an assertion that, no information exists that we do not know, which of course is physically impossible. Cameras everywhere? Facial recognition performed by computers? So what. Most people lived in small towns 150 years ago and everyone knew each other, individuals wee recognized from far off. Why wasn't privacy dead way back then? If privacy is dead, then why didn't they know what the Tsarnaev brothers were going to do next? Don't confuse an abundance of garbage information with a loss of privacy because, NO ONE knows what they don't know.

MarcusApril 14, 2015 10:16 AM

For me, this is the question- is this level of surveillance good or bad? The answer is not obvious.

For example, consider all the really bad things that have happened to you in your life which were not acts of nature (disease, earthquake) or accidents involving physics (car crashes etc).

Unless you're a genuine law or norm breaker, for me it went something like this:

Person X doesn't like you.

Person X tells someone who has some resource you want or need some baldfaced lie about you.

(here consider resource very broadly- bosses, friends, sexual mates, administrators, even inanimate things like say your report card or employee evaluation can be "told" things)

You're toast with respect to that resource and your life is changed utterly and forever.

Thinking back, this is basically all that has ever happened. Other forms of malice are either so hidden I am not aware of them or aren't really foul play, such as out competing me for some prize I wanted or been judged a more suitable mate in the eyes of a love interest.

I honestly can't think of a situation that doesn't fit this general description.

In a perfectly transparent world, one in which my every action and utterance is recorded forever, this series of Person X's lose all their power. At least, lose the power they have thus far successfully wielded .

From that perspective, that life sounds a lot better than what I have now.

Relevant comments?

MarcusApril 14, 2015 10:28 AM

If privacy is dead, then why didn't they know what the Tsarnaev brothers were going to do next?

This. If they've been deploying massive eavesdropping on international drug dealers for decades going back to 1989, why are whole swaths of our southern border a failed narco-state?

If it's about countering present day security threats, then where is that present day security?

However, if it's about countering near-future security threats, then what is the exact nature of those near-future threats which would warrant the presence of a panopticon, at least to a rational mind with non-outlier notions of what constitutes national security and civil society?

According to experts I've engaged in discussions, killing a lot of people is harder than you think. Basically, the terrorists have a distribution problem for their WMDs which they can't solve.

Is there some near-future technology which will change that fact? If so, what is it?

paulApril 14, 2015 10:42 AM

Note that a lot of the kinds of things Krugman is talking about don't actually require surveillance in the sense of identifiability. Programs could pass tokens around that didn't directly identify people and get the same results. (Yes, cross-referencing, but in a "transparent" world the cross-references are themselves subject to monitoring, which gives subjects a little leverage.)

From a business-plan point of view, it's much more profitable to route information through chokepoints where every transaction is identified, because you produce lots of salable information that way, so that's the way it will get done. But it's not logically necessary.

AlanSApril 14, 2015 11:16 AM

The Krugman part quoted from Apple and the Self-Surveillance State but originally linked to Our Invisible Rich (now corrected). I didn't find the Surveillance State post thoughtful and apparently Krugman didn't either ("So, here’s my pathetic version of a grand insight"). He comes dangerously close to the nothing to hide; nothing to fear argument ("most people probably don’t have that much to be private about...and the truth is that nobody cares").

I thought the accidentally-linked-to Invisible Rich was the more interesting piece as it got to the crux of the matter: economics, power, and inequality and the fact that so much of what matters is invisible. It's actually at odds with the claims in the other piece in which Krugman wrote "lack of privacy is actually part of the experience of being rich". He could have pushed the issue further. If you want to understand modern surveillance, modern visibility and invisibility, you need to begin by understanding how it is tied up with neoliberalism.

I though the Bennett and Roy essay was silly. They seem to think that digital technology will bring  about a revolution in transparency (technological determinism anyone?). Weren't people arguing that the Internet would change everything and we'd all enter a land of milk and honey a decade or two ago? And wasn't that sort of utopian thinking already thoroughly dedunked soon afterwards?  What we're getting in practice is transparency for what the little folk do, not for what the big boys do. What changes for the big boys is the need to adapt by developing new forms of surveillance, manipulation, propaganda, and misinformation. It's not a threat; it's an opportunity. And even if you buy into Bennett and Roy's transparency argument, transparency means nothing if there is no accountability. Where's the reform that's resulted from the Snowden revelations? Who went to prison for the atrocities committed by the CIA? Who went to prison for all the financial misdoings that resulted in the 2008 economic crash? (FYI: Krugman answers the latter question: " 2013 the top 25 hedge fund managers took home, on average, almost a billion dollars each.")

Bennett and Roy write:

As optimists [emphasis added], we would like to believe that this period of turmoil will push us toward organizations better aligned with the moral codes of civil society and powerful novel ways to correct deviant organizational behavior.

Fat chance. the only way that will happen is if enough people are outraged and express their outrage. It's not happening in the US at the moment; maybe it is starting to happen in the UK.

SamApril 14, 2015 11:26 AM

> we'll give up our privacy because we want to emulate the rich, who are surrounded by servants who know everything about them

Barbra Streisand pretty clearly demonstrates the displeasure of *everyone* knowing everything about you. It might only be OK when the people who know everything about you are under your control.

MarcusApril 14, 2015 12:05 PM

Fat chance. the only way that will happen is if enough people are outraged and express their outrage. It's not happening in the US at the moment; maybe it is starting to happen in the UK.

The more likely scenario is quiet economic defection from companies who don't share people's values.

The reason this is more likely is directly related to the nature of the offending behavior- surveillance. To express outrage is to risk being noted. To quietly defect is a non-event.

Look at what happened in Indiana last week. People were outraged, sure, but the Governor (Mike Pence) only started back-pedaling when corporations started applying pressure- specifically defection pressure. Those corporations in turn applied this pressure because they know they risk the defection of their employees, gay or otherwise, and their customers.

This has limits. You can't economically defect from the NSA or the government generally. But then again, look at the post-Snowden reaction on the part of mathematical talent:

Non-participation is outrage of a kind, but not a kind that necessarily makes you an active target of what you're outraged over.

K.S.April 14, 2015 12:10 PM

What about retroactively applying new social norms? Out society constantly evolves, if I lack privacy, something completely innocent by today's standards (e.g. wearing blue socks) could end up deeply stigmatized in the future and I will end up retroactively dealing with social consequences of my previous actions. This will happen even if I conform to evolved standards (e.g. no longer wearing blue socks). Lack of privacy is only one aspect, lack of forgetfulness is another aspect.

What about disproportionate and arbitrary enforcement of social norms? For example, fairly mild social norm deviation (e.g. not showering) could end up getting blown out of proportion. While many people could be deviating at any given time, if I get singled out in a viral way, it will have very disproportionate effect on my well-being. Without privacy I can't ever protect myself from such outcome. Lack of privacy is only one aspect, lack of proportionality in an interconnected would is another aspect.

I really hope post-privacy dystopia is not part of my future.

BooApril 14, 2015 12:23 PM

Markets keep getting more democratic or suffer from low to no growth.
The playing field is leveled:

Permission won't be given and help's not on the way.

Yet governments are jailing (Iran) or threatening journalists with jail (US) and others to halt information.

If journalists know too much, think about this. "By the end of 2014, the company expects Warren will be able to answer more than 100 million distinct types of complex financial questions."

Seems to me that railroading journalists doesn't make sense.

UhuApril 14, 2015 12:27 PM

Total transparency sounds ideal until you realize that it would never be ideal. If someone can keep things a bit more private than others, she would have an advantage. I think in terms of Game Theory it would be called an unstable equilibrium (or at the very least it is not Pareto ideal).

I agree with @Steve Scott in that privacy is an essential human requirement. I think it would not be enough that a person can go alone into a forest, the person would at times want to be accompanied by another person without anybody else knowing about what is going on. Thus private communications are essential, too, not just that a person's thoughts would remain private.

MarcusApril 14, 2015 12:34 PM

What about retroactively applying new social norms?

But society is pretty good about this, that is, forgiving. Look at Senator Byrd. Former KKK member, later, articulate voice for liberal (small l) values. Examples abound. Gunter Grass (R.I.P.), and of course womanizing men and former coke snorters all get forgiven before elected to the Presidency.

To get caught in the kind of thing you're talking about it
s not enough to just be a former Nazis or Japanese imperialist or Viet Cong, you have to be a former Nazis who was a death camp conspirator, a Nazi doctor or otherwise an architect or implementer of atrocity. These people are moral outliers, the theory goes, by standards which apply to all people at all times and places.

The architects of Climate Change Denialism fall into the category you're talking about. They are a group of people whose public utterances and actions will likely have dire consequences for them within their lifetimes. But this is as it should be.

BooApril 14, 2015 12:37 PM

In the second world war, the Nazis leaked information so often about an imminent invasion of France they were eventually ignored. The Allies did this too, parachuting mannequins several times before the real Normandy invasion and setting up other fake operations.

Thousands of aluminum foil strips were dropped and looked like large numbers of planes on German radar screens. They had planes chasing aluminum ghosts wasting time and fuel. Democracy won.

MarcusApril 14, 2015 12:49 PM


You're totally right. It's game theory all the way. I absolutely do not have anything figured out. However, that said, if I had a private but accessible on demand record of my every breath- a technical possibility to a first approximation- I could summon a defense on demand against false accusations or every stripe.

This is no small thing. Look at the Snowden documents to see how spies control events and perceptions through deceit and specifically falsification of someone's actions or speech, which is another name for lying. They ruin reputations by providing false documents, false witnesses false accusations etc etc.

And they're not alone. This is THE go to technique of people and organizations of all stripes. They're able to make it work just because there is no record- public or private- to contradict their lies.

A private, but accessible on demand record of all your actions is not a cure all for double dealing in all it's forms, of course. But think back through world history and your own personal history. What if lying about what happened or what someone said or did just wasn't a logistically dependable technique any longer? What if it was too likely to be contradicted in too many ways for it to be considered a secure technique?

That would change a lot of things.

Just thinking aloud.

BooApril 14, 2015 12:53 PM

"The war bred clever innovation in radar systems, navigation aids and bomb sites. Some were spectacularly successful. In July 1943, on a raid over Hamburg, planes dropped thousands of strips of aluminium foil, codenamed Window.

The strips fluttered down, creating a mass of reflections on German radar screens which made it difficult to distinguish the bombers and gave them an easy run on target. However, German technology kept pace with the British. By the end of the war, German fighters were equipped with radar that could home in on individual British planes."

'It was a Jekyll and Hyde existence really, and it was funny to just ride around your bike among the fields, and think, well, it's not many hours since we were in another, completely different world. And probably thinking maybe just once or twice about friends who hadn't come back. It was a schizophrenic life really. You had to have two caps, one to enjoy yourself and one to get serious.' (Roy MacDonald)

It's still a Jekyll and Hyde existence really. Have an easy run out there.

BillApril 14, 2015 1:05 PM


"What if lying about what happened or what someone
said or did just wasn't a logistically dependable
technique any longer?"

True. Just ask Michael Slager what happens when video contradicts your claims.

AlexApril 14, 2015 1:10 PM

Maybe Hollywood-type rich have servants which know everything about them, and are pleased with that arrangement.

BUT, the majority of wealthy people I know are old money, rather quiet and private especially about their financial affairs. They're more likely to be driving a 10 year old Mercedes E-Class than a brand new S-Class. This is why there is Private banking, Private First Class lounges at airports, etc. Likewise, some religions/churches frown upon conspicuous donations and will make/keep the donation process as private as possible. My own church is this way and won't pass a collection plate.

I just did a customer Mercedes for someone who wanted to keep a low profile... I know, Mercedes != low profile, but they were willing to work with us. Mercedes basically shoved an S-Class into an E-Class body, engine, interior, technology, reinforced glass, everything. To the passerby, you'd never notice it, which is exactly what the client wanted.

MarcusApril 14, 2015 1:42 PM

It's interesting that (evolutionary biologist) Dennett weighed in. One thing he would agree with is that all this "bad human behavior stuff" which requires all these evolutionary adaptations on the part of organizations and society he's talking about are not strictly speaking necessary for survival.

We have the technology to provide enough food, land, water and shelter for everyone to have a decent existence from the POV of evolutionary pressures meaning -exactly- each person could live long enough and well enough to reproduce their genes.

It's not the way we think about the world, but it's true nevertheless: for everyone, everywhere not afflicted by an intervening Act of Nature, evolutionary pressures no longer apply.

And yet the competition for resources is as ferocious as ever. Why?

Because it's baked into our genes.

No matter how rich people get, their genes whisper to them that they need to be richer still. Ditto with sexual partners, screwing over the other fellow, and all kinds of covetous and dominance behaviors.

All of them are archaic with respect to their original purpose- to acquire and control enough resources in a competitive resource-constrained world in order to live long enough to reproduce your genes.

Most of what we spend our time, money and attention on is not alleviating the suffering brought by the natural world. It's dealing with the nasty consequences of our genetic drives,trying to control each other and limit the badness we want to inflict on each other.

You know how some light bulb technology is more efficient than others in producing light from a given amount of electricity? If humans were light bulbs and progress towards alleviating human suffering were light, we'd be 99.99999% inefficient.

Not to go all Brave New World on anyone but the fact is, we are - no hyperbole, no shit- toying with our own imminent extinction via global warming owing to (a small group of) people's desire for power, money and control.

It is a fact that it may already be too late for us no matter what we do in the future.

What greater signal do we need to pull out all the stops and starting thinking outside of usual categories of solutions and what better start to our start than re-framing the problem as what it actually, literally and finally is- our genes?

It seems far fetched and irrelevant to our immediate circumstances, but it's not. Our genes drive most of human misery, or world history as we call it politely. At the very least, projects to tone down our blistering need to dominate people and resources which no longer need to be dominated would be a step in the right direction.

Game theory only applies in a framework where humans are competing for limited resources and gaining advantage through inflicting disadvantage over other humans. To be sure, that is the correct historical / evolutionary framework that has applied to all creatures in all times and places. Except it's not necessary anymore for humans.

We've had a computer revolution and now we can do things in ways which would be "indistinguishable from magic" (Asimov) to people living a few centuries ago or maybe even less. We need to brig the same level of understanding and control to ourselves.

BooApril 14, 2015 1:42 PM

"Hamburg was well defended. The Nazis were aware of its historic significance as the major port in the old Hanseatic League. The city was ringed with anti-aircraft defences and there were 1,700 shelters for 230,000 citizens. Radar around the city could pick up enemy bombers when they were 100 miles away.

‘Operation Gomorrah’ was scheduled to last for three nights, starting on July 24th. For the mission, bomber crews were issued with tin foil strips (‘chaff’) coated onto paper which were to be dropped from each bomber. These served to confuse radar crews whose screens were effectively obscured by one mass echo blob and individual bombers could not be identified."

I didn't know that. You put the aluminum foil on paper. So much for the all seeing sky. Four cheers for Mass Echo Blob.

BoppingAroundApril 14, 2015 4:14 PM

Once again, interesting post.
> maybe it is starting to happen in the UK.
What are you referring to?

AlanSApril 14, 2015 6:32 PM


Who knows where this will go but everything that was settled in the UK is coming apart. Scotland, which is wildly misunderstood south of the border, has come to life. The three main UK parties along with most of the main stream media have lost most of their credibility in Scotland. May 7th will be interesting.

AlanSApril 14, 2015 8:23 PM


Neoliberalism is the extension of the market rationality, as envisioned by neoclassical economists, to all spheres of human activity e.g. to politics, government, law, crime, family, healthcare, education, even to one's conception of self. Your conception of political action as "quiet economic defection" from A to B hardly puts you at odds with Gary Becker or Richard Posner.

MarcusApril 15, 2015 12:09 AM


I was being descriptive and predictive, not proscriptive.

Richard Posner.. what dud he's turned into, eh?

At one time he was a noted original and even vital thinker on the law, way way way too honest, practical and unsparing to ever be considered for SCOTUS.

Now he's acting like Exhibit #1 in everyone's most paranoid the-NSA-is-blackmailing-judges fantasies.

What happened to that guy? Early onset dementia of some kind? wander over to your favorite online bookstore and have a gander at the books not written by him but about him. Ditto the law reviews. He was a very interesting guy in his previous life as a serious jurist.

Coyne TibbetsApril 15, 2015 12:25 AM

Paul Krugman's argument has a fundamental flaw.

Yes, we would like to get the benefits of the rich, such as not waiting in line, but there's still not an equivalence.

Take his example: "Your reservation app provides the restaurant with the data it needs to recognize your wristband, and maybe causes your table to flash up on your watch, so you don't mill around at the entrance, you just walk in and sit down."

The fundamental difference is this: When "minions" do this for rich people, they don't talk about it. I mean, it happens, but it is the exception rather than the rule, and absolutely ruins an further possibility of employment for the leaking minion.

But when the restaurant offers us the service, it's just a bit different. First there comes the Terms and Conditions we'll have to agree to, before we can go to the restaurant.

Then, when we make a reservation and then: The restaurant sells our name, reservation, and everything else they can think of to other parties, so we can be: targeted with ads in the vicinity of the restaurant; targeted with ads at the table; targeted with offers for other restaurants. They'll change their menu to bump the prices for our favorite comfort foods by 20%. They'll check our credit cards in advance to make sure we'll really be able to pay. They check our personal history to make sure we're not a felon or someone who "dines and dashes." They'll sell a menu of what we buy to the insurance company so that company can say, "You caused your own heart attack when you ate that ..." They'll market to our friends, taking over our identities, "Come to our restaurant--your friends loved it!" If we have any fame, they'll sell that to other people, "Come by our restaurant tonight: 'so-and-so' will be here." Our entire meal will be spent with fans drooling in our food that is lighted by the table-top monitors, while our "wrist band" helpfully chimes with, "Go to Cap'n Ice Cream in the next 10 minutes, buy a banana split and get one free!" and "The movie Lameoids is starting in 5 minutes in the theater across the street, coupon attached!" and, "Hurry! Hurry! Cover charge waived at Sid's Disco Bar."

Or that's the way it will be in the foreseeable future, in a restaurant near you. The sky's the limit. In fact, they'll make more marketing our information than they will make off our meal. They should probably be paying us to eat there, but they won't, you can bet on that.

...and that is not the slightest bit like the experience of the rich; not even a facade. The rich might have a wonderful experience--in Krugman's future, the rest of us will wind up slaves.

FluffytheObeseCatApril 15, 2015 1:23 AM

"When "minions" do this for rich people, they don't talk about it."

Bingo. The innate power imbalance does not change at all, in fact, Big WristBrother enhances the imbalance, 24/7. It also destroys plausible deniability.

One of the weirdest things for me following the Snowden revelations was a few things that did not happen. I expected a few simple, modest fixes to become common & normalized, with 3-7 versions marketed online for $14.98 to $5.96 used, etc.

Particularly, iPad and iPhone cases designed to cover the cameras. Or at least, Android tablet and phone covers designed to allow occasional "camera-off" episodes in life. I didn't expect every American consumer to immediately recognize the "Dick Pics" potential of our devices, but I did think there would be a modest reaction in the tech-savvy bourgeoisie, and shortly thereafter, some cool stuff for those who wanted to secure their teenage daughters from voyeurism. I expected to begin to see simple products marketed to that niche. Instead, I had to train my kid to always cover the 'Pad with dirty laundry when she took it into the bathroom to listen to music while showering.

The pervasive absence of such small, cheap consumer accessories never ceases to amaze me. We still buy fucking window curtains........ so why don't we have a selection of sleek, stylish tablet cases with camera covers on every site from NewEgg to The social norming of "always-on" personal equipment has been very rapid, and is very, very strange, given that even the young are still furious when, say, revenge porn is worked upon them and their friends.

And, yes, we geeks here all know there are a myriad of other types of data that are gathered, irrespective of whether the phone/tablet/watch/computer camera can get enough light to capture the visible spectrum datastream. But, so what? We live most of our lives in the visible spectrum.

gordoApril 15, 2015 1:55 AM

Interesting take on the culture question:

SPIEGEL Interview with Tomas Sedlacek: 'Greed is the Beginning of Everything' [excerpt]:

SPIEGEL: It's easy to increase consumption, but decreasing it is much more difficult to do. Doesn't the uneven distribution of wealth also propel the wheel of desire, based on the motto that I want what others have?

Sedláček: Yes, the social ladder becomes sticky on the way down. The view of economists is that each individual seeks to maximize his benefit. The only problem with this is that we cannot precisely define what the optimal benefit is for us. We don't know what we want. That's why we need comparisons, examples and suggestion. Try imagining an object of your desire, a beautiful woman, for example. It doesn't work as an abstract idea, because the imagined image in your head is volatile. You need a photo, a description, a model. Someone has to tell you what you think is so great that you find it irresistible -- society, neighbors and colleagues, but also the advertising and entertainment industry, ads, films and books. All desires that exceed our basic biological needs are determined by culture. We want to live as if we were actors portraying ourselves.

AlanSApril 15, 2015 10:11 AM


Thanks for the link. That's a rarity, an economist who actually appreciates rather than grossly misrepresents Adam Smith (same can't be said for the person posing the questions).

Sedláček: Yes. In his "Theory of Moral Sentiments," Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, defines sympathy as the basis of morality and as the driving force of human activity. The suffering of one person also affects someone else....Self-interest guides human behavior, but Smith knew that man cannot be explained by the egoistical principle alone. He clearly distanced himself from his contemporary Bernard Mandeville and his theory that private vices generate public advantages, and that the general welfare stems from the self-interest of the individual. Contrary to his effective history, I believe that Smith's legacy consists in the incorporation of moral questions into economics -- in fact, that they are precisely what constitute its core. For modern economists, on the other hand, the question of good and evil is practically heretical.

Smith is commonly claimed by economists as the father of modern economics but much of what he wrote is at odds with neoclassical economics. Economics as it is practiced now is based on utilitarianism and stems from the Marginal Revolution in the 1870s, not Smith's writings from a hundred years earlier.

MarcusApril 15, 2015 10:40 AM


>>The pervasive absence of such small, cheap consumer accessories never ceases to amaze me

Two things. One is, the phone makers WANT your photos because, well, they want absolutely everything about you all the time, Matrix-style.

(but why? at some point the marginal value of me a splayed out consumer-bug-on-a-slide has to go down just because the information brokers have no new facts about my buying habits to offer)

Towards this end and possibly others they built in functionality on the phone which needs the camera to work, such as "wave hand to turn screen on" and "remain on as long as you're looking at camera" (and it's looking at you!).

My understanding is Google (Motorola) went so far as to *make the screen go black if the camera was face down* and the way it was determined it was face down was if the front camera was covered- i.e. 0 lumens. Don't quote me (I have only one person telling me this about their camera) but what she said was covering the front camera resulted in a loss of operation of the camera.

Second, at least the after-market for such a product has a lot going against it. There is no obvious place to attach such a movable shutter to most cameras. Plus, rough competition from low cost substitutes- such as one-side sticky velcro tape and suchlike.

ThisOldManApril 15, 2015 11:28 AM

In my former day job as a computer performance analyst, we applied the Varian Rule but at each occurance, it was not recognized as such. We ran our 1st database systems, a multitude of them, at one tran per second. In a peak situation, such as return from a long holiday period or recovery from a failure situation, the tran rates went up (by factors of 2, 3, or more). We had to reconfigure the hardware (CPU, disk, etc), network, software, and visibility of the systems, to move to 10 trans/sec, then over time, to a hundred trans/sec, and ever thousands per second. It was a matter of meeting the expectations of computer service.

Today, the Varian Rule in many forms, is being applied across society, but in many cases, not for the greater good of the populace but for the greater good of the overlords. What Homeland Security has wrought with the TSA, is now being extended to every possible venue.

And, it is accompanied by a theme compliant with the expectations of the overlords...cost cutting (with the implication of bigger wads of dough in their pockets). One such observance of a cost cutting measure is moving data (and typically processing of that data) to the "cloud". While distributed computing was once the panecea of computer processing, it is now the downfall of maintaining and controlling your own information. All such information in the "cloud" is there for the purpose of influence, intimidation, and control of the populace.

Nick PApril 15, 2015 2:19 PM

re Krugman's Varian rule

I think he's selective here. The rich often have a few, trusted workers who handle most of the stuff for them. Their tier of commercial services traditionally practiced more discretion than most, with some even promising confidentiality. They only exposed themselves to some risk when using mass market stuff. By contrast, the services the public will be using typically include in the EULA a right to sell them out to anyone and everyone. And that's their business model (incentive) on top of that. So, where the public is going isn't really where the rich are and probably can't be due to their focus on price.

On top of it, the rich also buy privacy. Many rich people I've known of in financial and insurance sector have luxury estates in rural areas that are hard to find. It's common for them to put trees or even empty homes between them and the masses. They rarely share their personal cell number. There's often gatekeepers between their activities and public inquiries. A segment of them use privacy-centered email, remailers, phone call forwarding, offshore accounts, and so on. Some even hire immigrants for work at the house, not only for cost savings, but also because poor English makes gossiping on Oxford-grade business conversations less likely.

So, the rich care quite a bit about privacy, often loose little of it when they use agency, and many even buy a bit more of it in specific areas. The public will get more of their capabilities with less privacy or quality of service. This works out fine for the rich: they're the one's investing in the companies squeezing the masses for profitable data. The elites will "monetize" them in new ways while developing new privacy strategies for themselves. Same game, different day.

John PepperApril 15, 2015 3:43 PM

On the article:

I was struggling with this concept in a recent private paper and concluded that what we are seeing is simply the monetization of private data by public entities we trust. A positive there is that we have reasons to trust them. They have reasons to either be trustworthy, which is the cheapest course for them; or to be untrustworthy but to simply keep that untrustworthiness hidden.

The later is much more expensive for them. Therefore, they will tend to actually try and be trustworthy.

There is a strong side benefit to this arrangement for the consumer which is that this relationship means the trusted provider has it in their best monetary interests to subdue untrusted competitors for private data. Such as criminal hackers.

The typical problem with this manner of system is the lack of competition inherent in it. If you do not trust your telco who has system level control of your phone, Microsoft, the government, or other primary vendors and authorities then you will find ways to not share that data. There is no way for them to prevent that sort of competition. The end user has some control over supply, individually, and collectively.

Part of that control over supply is by their option of utilizing systems which enhance their security and curtail supply. No wonder then, those trusted parties, which invariably include one's government, are very strong set against end users maintaining that freedom. It cuts into their bottomline.

But, they are crippled in this pursuit because safe commerce requires strong security, and by taking their approach they are potentially damaging their own capacity for strong supply in the 'not so distant' future. Such an approach, as well, decreases the value of their 'currency' of trust just by making such an approach.

These observations made: it should be noted that this entire ecosystem leaves out a critical component. The privacy and private data of these very trusted entities. Transparency is required for trust. That is a primary component of the 'currency of trust'. So, inevitably, these organizations themselves are heading towards far more transparency then they would like.

(Not even to mention the galling fact that individually, they are in the same boat, if not worse, then everyone else already.)

BooApril 15, 2015 4:05 PM

Backdoor is off limits. Now they are looking for frontdoor access. That might not fly. How about sidedoor access? It's looking like the threats are in the airspace so the solution might be the bombdoor which might also be the problem.

Rooster: So long, Tom.

Turk: Where are you going?

Rooster: I dunno. To hell, I suppose.

They have gates not doors.

John PepperApril 15, 2015 5:41 PM

@Marcus Walsh, Martin Walsh

They're all wrong - guaranteed. Analysis of what's happening is one thing, but predictions are impossibly wrong. ... A single precipitous technological advance no one could have predicted, will throw a wrench into all of it. Wars of a different kind are coming. If there was no privacy then why is attribution so hard, if not impossible? If anyone could predict what happens next, then why couldn't they tell us two years ago where we'd be today?
Don't confuse an abundance of garbage information with a loss of privacy because, NO ONE knows what they don't know.

Very true and well said.

It is also a very healthy mindset to have. I often argue about these issues, but ultimately it is just a game, if not a guise. We all have to do something with our time.

I did not highlight your statement that 'a different kind of war is coming' because I wanted to argue that you do seem confident you know the future while seeming to state otherwise. Rather, I would agree with you, and note that this manner of prediction is one people can trust in.

A strong reason for this is found in your very argument.

The globally traded 'currency' of knowledge is grotesquely overvalued. Add to that the factor of the means of expressing knowledge is fantastically sharpened in terms of speed & reach of delivery. It is inevitable, therefore, that there will be a global readjustment.

Such a readjustment can very well be said to be like a 'war', or like a flooding of the market of previously hidden reserves. The later imagery does not conjur the full nature of the loss people can expect, however, so "war" is a more apt phrasing.

People can lose homes, monetary investments, and other material goods, but none of that comprises their internal self. A person's knowledge, however is in their very soul, in their internal being.

But, maybe my elaboration has errors in it.

@Alan S

I thought the accidentally-linked-to Invisible Rich was the more interesting piece as it got to the crux of the matter: economics, power, and inequality and the fact that so much of what matters is invisible. It's actually at odds with the claims in the other piece in which Krugman wrote "lack of privacy is actually part of the experience of being rich". He could have pushed the issue further. If you want to understand modern surveillance, modern visibility and invisibility, you need to begin by understanding how it is tied up with neoliberalism.

The truly powerful are invisible. This is unlikely to always be the case. It is, however, very much the case at the moment.

People can not oppose nor fight against what they can not see.

If their "weapons" are removed, then there is no reason for invisibility.

... though what such 'weapons' are, or under what context such a removal would happen... I can not say. But, it may be a concept worth consideration, if only for a potentially interesting intellectual pursuit.

Though, maybe you would not agree.

BooApril 15, 2015 6:14 PM

I'm a rocket ace. According to NASA you need to make 65,000 errors before being qualified to build a rocket and failure is not an option it is a feature. The security establishment is trying to avoid and stop errors and is only stopping progress.

BooApril 16, 2015 2:20 PM

"Giovanni Battista della Porta, an Italian polymath, developed a formula for invisible ink that consisted of an ounce of alum and a pint of vinegar. Once painted on the shell of a hard-boiled egg, it would seep through and transfer the message onto the egg’s albumen. The writing could only be seen once the egg was peeled."

King paid 100 dollars for a couple of eggs and said eggs must be rare around here. His aid said, no they aren't but kings are sir.

SocraticGadflyApril 16, 2015 9:48 PM

Ahh, Dennett, and his greedy reductionism, which he can somehow find in plenty of others, but not himself, strikes again, along with a particular aspect of that greedy reductionism, namely, the idea that every type of quasi-evolutionary development is Darwinian, and algorithmic.

gordoApril 17, 2015 3:31 AM

Slightly off topic:

Some satire on not being yourself:

"You Are What You Is"

Do you know what you are?
You are what you is
You is what you am
(A cow don't make ham...)
You ain't what you're not
So see what you got
You are what you is
An' that's all it 'tis

- Frank Zappa, 1981

For the uninitiated there's a racial slur used in the piece. To avoid offense and for background please read the 'Song Facts' including the comments.

Song Facts

Video [04:15]


Tanvir AhmedApril 17, 2015 8:04 AM


you are absolutely right
...transparent and government are just antonyms of each other.

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