Public Parts: A book review

“Reading” books on my iPod is usually great. I can download them from audible, and while I’m tending to the daily monotony that comprises much of labwork (tissue culture, prepping protein samples, running back and forth between centrifuges), I can just pop in my earbuds and keep my brain engaged with something interesting. But never have I so regretted listening to rather than reading a book as I did with Public Parts by Jeff Jarvis.

i-48cf39cc628ab9a553d058bbfa0b9483-6000093698_c19f0e8c2a-thumb-150x230-71926.jpgNot because he’s a bad narrator – in fact he does better than many authors reading their own work (though he has the first audio typo I think I’ve ever heard… I don’t think any of our interactions being “meditated by” corporations). Rather, I regretted listening because there’s no way to dogear pages or highlight great lines. I tried briefly to write down the timestamp of some good bits, but based on the way I listen, I quickly realized that was untenable.

Normally, when I’m reading a book I plan to review for the blog, I like to read the book in print and take notes, but I didn’t expect this book to be super relevant for people that want to read about science. I was wrong and I’ll tell you why a bit later. But first, the book:

The book opens with a definition.

Publicness:
1. The act or condition of sharing information, thoughts or actions.
2. Gathering people or gathering around people, ideas or needs. Making a public.

3. Opening a process, so as to make it collaborative.

4. An ethic of openness.

What follows is a detailed defense of, and advocacy for increased publicness in just about every area of modern life, from our own social circles, to business practices, to government. Jarvis describes a situation in which, every time a new service is launched to facilitate and encourage public sharing, from google street view to Foursquare and facebook, self-proclaimed “privacy advocates” decry a descent into an anarchy of openness. Jarvis proclaims himself a “publicness advocate,” and a superficial analysis of the book would find him arguing always for more disclosure, more transparency, more sharing, more “publicness.” In reality, it’s quite a bit more nuanced.

One of my favorite bits of exposition was a discussion of Germany’s opposition to google street view – the service that adds pictures of storefronts and houses along just about all the streets that google has mapped. Worried that pictures of their houses on the internet would violate their privacy, many Germans opted out, forcing google to cover large areas of Germany with blurred pixels. Yet at the same time, Germans are more than happy to hang out naked in co-ed saunas – something most Americans would freak out about. This just goes to show that norms about what should be private, what should be public, and how we should make choices about our own privacy and publicness are not self-evident.

Through numerous examples, Jarvis paints a picture of a world that, whether we like it or not, is trending towards increased publicness. Drawing parallels with the intellectual and cultural revolution brought about by Gutenberg’s printing press, he argues that the internet will cause a seismic shift in the way people interact and share their lives. That much seems obvious (it’s already done this), but Jarvis seems to believe that we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. Rather than railing against this however, he celebrates it, and even proposes we take efforts to go further. He doesn’t argue that publicness is always the right answer, but that we should think more deeply about what it makes sense to make public.

For instance, when Jarvis was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009, he blogged about it, and blogged about his treatment options, and about complications such as incontinence and an inability to get an erection after the surgery to remove his prostate. Some criticized this level of publicness about something that most might regard as a private matter, but it started a dialogue that brought together other people suffering from similar problems, and a collection of advice that made life easier for him, and hopefully for future sufferers. Jarvis doesn’t advocate that you share every detail about every bit of minutiae from your daily life – but if you have information that could help other people, I think he’s saying you should default to sharing unless you can think of a compelling reason not to. In fact, if there are things that you could share that might help others, he proposes that we might regard keeping that information private as a selfish act.

Another interesting interesting discussion is if and how to regulate information. Many privacy advocates want to limit what information is collected about you, but Jarvis thinks a better approach is to regulate how that information can be used. Should Jarvis have kept his health information private for fear that insurance companies would not cover him or because employers might not hire him? Perhaps we should instead forbid insurance companies or employers from discriminating on the basis of health. Does it make sense to prevent companies from collecting data about where you are? Apple was caught doing this for iPhone users and caused a huge controversy over privacy. But Jarvis thinks that this knee-jerk reaction was ill-considered. There are plenty of great services that we could benefit from that use data about our location – preventing companies from collecting that data will ultimately hold us back. Instead, Jarvis argues, we should have a conversation about how that data can be used, and ultimately we should have a choice.

Jarvis also profiles a number of people in the vanguard of publicness. Mark Zuckerberg of facebook was an obvious choice, but he also profiles people like John Rogers, founder of Local Motors – a car company that’s using an open source model to design its vehicles. These people, among many others, are finding ways to make relationships with their publics, rather than a specific product, valuable. Jarvis argues that this is the future of business, and that companies based on a model of secrecy and witholding will ultimately be at a disadvantage.

There’s a lot more, but I don’t want to try to make Jeff Jarvis’ argument – I probably wouldn’t do a very good job, and it would take more time and a few re-readings to do it any kind of justice. I will say that I found the argument incredibly compelling, and I think that anyone that’s concerned about privacy, or the future of the internet should probably read this book.

As to why this might matter to science interested readers: perhaps you’ve heard about the Research Works Act, a bill making it’s way through congress that would rescind a current rule that requires any publicly funded research in the US to be freely distributed within a year of its publication. Publishers of scientific journals are strongly pushing this bill, essentially arguing that they deserve more revenue from the works they publish, despite the fact that they add almost no value to the papers themselves. Essentially, they are trying to role back rules that encourage publicness in science. To fully flush this issue out, I think will take another post, but for now, here’s a couple of other perspectives. I don’t fully agree with all of what’s said (I’ll explain why later), but these are a good place to start.

Comments

  1. #1 Justicar
    January 14, 2012

    I run into these types from time to time; ordinarily, they’re fairly easily ignored because of the leafy aroma which surrounds them. But I take it that this iteration of that species of kumbaya is more sophisticated than the local undergrad stoner who’s being crammed with tons of data and not enough time to process it properly.

    Does it make sense to prevent companies from collecting data about where you are? Apple was caught doing this for iPhone users and caused a huge controversy over privacy. But Jarvis thinks that this knee-jerk reaction was ill-considered.

    That’s precisely an improper question. The correct question is something more along the lines: does it make sense to prevent companies from collecting data about where you are over your objection to their doing so and without informing you that they are going to do it anyway? In other words, the question you ask (which I’ll credit to the book you listened to) precisely makes the decision of when to be tracked, when to have one’s private affairs made public and all of that a decision in which the one being monitored and tracked has no say, for they have no knowledge.

    Peeping Toms are imprisoned for similar conduct, and I see no reason that because the legal entity in question is a corporation and not some sexually frustrated whackjob that it becomes acceptable to routinely, well, spy on people without their knowledge and against their consent.

    Why do I strum the consent as in the negation thereof bit so much? Because until consent is indicated, we generally presume that it is withheld; we apply this to sex, searches and seizures of property and monies and a gallimaufry of other issues which are historically–and I think properly–left to the individual unless and until it’s demonstrated that ignoring that person’s wishes is sufficiently important that their decision no longer matters.

    The reaction doesn’t appear to be kneejerk; given the choice to allow or disallow location tracking of an app on an iPhone I and my friends ordinarily allow it (on the proviso that the data aren’t being mined and used by companies in ways not congruent with the specific terms of services I signed; notably being shared with the government and what not) because it makes our lives easier in planning things. But we can also turn that off at a whim, which I from time to time do when I’m up to something that’s none of their business.

    Sorry, contra-this author, the concept that one should be ‘public’ with various and sundry information unless there’s a reason, specifically a good enough one, to withhold it is silly. Is it a selfish act that I don’t report my last bowel movement to the world? I can think of no compelling argument as to why that should not be made public beyond I don’t want the world knowing my business.

    I can think of many reasons to keep it private, but none of them are great. Should in his utopia the error be made in the interest of making sure as much information as possible is available? I realize you added in a blurb about one not expounding on the minutiae of one’s life, but that doesn’t resolve the problems – problems which you also collaterally mention in your post here as a feature of the book: what people take to be highly private information isn’t remotely uniform. That is to say that what one group might consider minutiae is a big freaking deal to another, less influential group. What then? The smaller group just has to accept the fact that their concerns about their information are inferior to the dictates of the larger group? Maybe we just shouldn’t tell them that and do it anyway (like with the iPhone ‘knee jerk’ business)?

    You mentioned nudity and one’s address as examples which aren’t nearly uniformly treated with the same view.

    I think sex is pretty much a non-issue (though not a non-event – at least if you’re doing it right!), but nearly half of my country are very, very, VERY concerned about a minority of the population and what they’re doing while naked with other consenting in adults in their own homes. So, what I consider to be an issue of rather trivial import is to about half of my country, a BIG FUCKING DEAL – literally on the fucking bit. Combining the address of where these people are shagging along with the fact that they are and you have a recipe for disaster. For, you know, if enough people want the information I see no way of saying the information can’t be made public but for invoking individual privacy concerns.

    Of course, you also make his point that the issue is about how data are used rather than whether it exists. Okay, fine. Let’s make a law that the information will be available, but that people can’t use it to barge in and stop the hedonists from having sex. This is useful in the same way that enacting laws against: speeding, jaywalking, murder, rape and drunk driving have been effective in stopping those acts. Either you or Jarva, or some combination of the two along with communication issues, fail to adequately consider that laws governing the use of information are only useful after the misdeeds are done, to compensate the victims and punish the guilty.

    Laws don’t stop crime; they put one on notice the price of ordering off of that menu.

    I don’t know what would happen necessarily, but I’m not going to be guinea pig to see how that information, if made available to whoever wanted it, would be used. When it comes to this trivial issue of ‘privacy’, the problem isn’t how things should be in a perfect world; it’s how things must be in an imperfect world where certain kinds of information if available to one’s enemies become ruinous and even lethal. It’s a non-problem so long one is acceptable to everyone else, or at least not so out there that one is really a big thorn in the side of others. But that’s not the world in which we live.

    If this author of yours wants a world where being open and public about all kinds of heretofore considered-private-information-and-important-by-some-large-group-of-people, then he’s working in the wrong field.

  2. #2 Kevin
    January 14, 2012

    @ Justicar – I don’t think Jarvis advocated that any of this sort of data should be used without people’s consent, and I didn’t mean to imply that he did. In fact, he goes out of his way to say that corporations like Apple and governments should be more public about what they do and why they’re doing it, and leave it to their customers to decide whether they want to participate or not.

    Nor is he arguing that publicness is always the right move. In our current culture, we only make something public when we see a compelling reason to. I think this book is an attempt to give a lot of compelling reasons to make things public that we wouldn’t normally think about. Getting back to your bowel movement (this is my argument, not his) – maybe if you’re regular there’s no reason to, but what if you’re having really bad diarrhea? It could be important for people to know that the restaurant you just ate at gave you food poisoning, or that there’s an epidemic of cholera or something. You wouldn’t know which was the cause, but if everyone were sharing, someone might be able to mine that data and figure out the culprit – shutting down the restaurant or getting treatment where it was needed. This might be taking the argument to an absurd end, but the point is, there are benefits to publicness that aren’t often considered.

    When it comes to this trivial issue of ‘privacy’, the problem isn’t how things should be in a perfect world; it’s how things must be in an imperfect world where certain kinds of information if available to one’s enemies become ruinous and even lethal.

    Jarvis doesn’t argue that privacy is trivial, and in fact seems to be arguing that publicness is an essential component of privacy.

    it’s how things must be in an imperfect world where certain kinds of information if available to one’s enemies become ruinous and even lethal.

    Again with a little reductio ad absurdem – but if you were public about everything, there’s nothing your enemies could have on you that would be ruinous. Clearly, no one would ever be public about everything, but I think a major thrust of the argument in this book is that we need to evaluate what things it really makes sense to keep private, so we can make policy that makes sense and doesn’t stifle opportunity.

    And again, please don’t take my defense as the sum of the strength of his argument. I might be drawing conclusions that he didn’t intend, and even where he would agree, I’m probably not doing his argument justice. In the conclusions, he notes that all of these technologies that allow publicness can be used for both good and evil purposes. I think the main point is that we shouldn’t stifle the technology and the ability to do something just because we can imagine the worst possible use it could have.

  3. #3 Justicar
    January 14, 2012

    I don’t think Jarvis advocated that any of this sort of data should be used without people’s consent, and I didn’t mean to imply that he did. In fact, he goes out of his way to say that corporations like Apple and governments should be more public about what they do and why they’re doing it, and leave it to their customers to decide whether they want to participate or not.

    That’s what gave rise to the ‘knee-jerk’ reaction though; they didn’t; they weren’t, and people were being monitored without having given consent to it. If Jarvis (not Jarva as I wrongly typed earlier) is aware that the issue in that case was the fact that said data mining was surreptitious, and he concedes that such shouldn’t happen, then it cannot follow that the reaction to having one’s data being collected in the absence of one’s consent and on the down low is ‘knee-jerk’. That is a legitimate source of concern for ‘privacy’ type people. Of course, privacy is just a clever rewording of security, but I’m not here for a debate on semantics. =^_^=

    Getting back to your bowel movement (this is my argument, not his) – maybe if you’re regular there’s no reason to, but what if you’re having really bad diarrhea? It could be important for people to know that the restaurant you just ate at gave you food poisoning, or that there’s an epidemic of cholera or something

    Yes, it could be. And I didn’t contemplate that specific scenario of a pathogen (though I can see why you would given your work), but I immediately thought of medical research. It would be, I have no doubt, very useful if we could have available for study the incident rates of irregular bowel movements of an entire population. Nay, it would be useful if we could track every bowel movement of everyone at all times; that would obviate the need for attempting to model a population on a sampling. We’d need know exactly, with perfect precision what that looks like. No doubt that would improve the lives of the relevant medical professions and their patients in need.

    So, I didn’t consider the pathogenic issue in particular, but I was specifically contemplating medical issues in the aggregate. However, having available that sort of data implies quite a lot, and I think it’s a bit silly to say that these issues aren’t considered.

    We always have a tension between the individual and its group. What is good for the individual might be dangerous to the group, and vice versa. The collection of large amounts of data about individuals at the level of the individual as an autonomous entity versus part of the group (what book is Kevin reading tonight – what’s Kevin wearing right now – is Kevin beating off right now and what not) are sometimes in conflict; often as the result of a group of a certain size deciding it wants to know more than its entitled to know about an individual.

    Think of Star Trek. They have really good scanning devices. Let’s say I’m horny one night and in a position of ability to access the internal sensors (I almost wrote censors) to find out what Kevin is wearing tonight; what Kevin is doing with himself or with someone else. I just want to watch.

    Whether I decide to record that encounter, if one is going on, is immediately not subject to your say-so. Your personal affairs become immediately subject to my vote alone.

    Of course one can argue that I can be punished for doing that (how it’s used, not whether it’s collected), but that takes us right back to privacy concerns. And it doesn’t undo the damage that is done.

    This tension is always with us, and there’s some give and some take as our needs and views change, but it’s not an absurd reduction to take account of the facts of our lives. For instance, in Germany: let’s just see if there’s any possible reason in recent history that might influence the culture on why one’s residence is considered sacrosanct. Why is it, I wonder aloud, that the German people would be sensitive to attempts to monitor their homes?

    Is it because a short time ago such intrusions were done under the heel of the SS? I do not know that this is a reason, but I’d be surprised to find out that this isn’t still reeling in the public consciousness there.

    Again with a little reductio ad absurdem – but if you were public about everything, there’s nothing your enemies could have on you that would be ruinous.

    Not true at all. I said ruinous and even lethal. There are people who right now, this moment, today, want to arrange my country’s ways such that I should be executed for having sex. I take this with some degree of seriousness, and it’s one reason why I’m unlisted and unpublished in the phone book, and that I take other minor issues of security into account in where I live and how my home is designed.

    To say that a full disclosure of what to you might be a trivial thing (I note you blog under your real name, for instance; I do not) is not a more substantial one in my case is a reduction to the absurd is simply untrue. While I might well be able to change all of that and suffer no ill from it in my case, I do not know this. And, as I said, I’m unwilling to be a test case. Simply put, I enjoy being alive more than I care about other people’s access to information that might prove somewhat useful to them but impose on me a degree of danger I’d rather not contend with.

    And that’s in a general sense. Disclosing one’s name and location seems fairly innocuous if the frequency with which it’s done on various social media is any metric. Would it then follow that this is an argument for someone like Aayan Hirsi Ali to do the same? You say I’m committing some fashion of fallacious arguing; rather, I’m pointing out that information the likes of which you describe come with real consequences. And, I hasten to note, I’m just selecting examples of which most socially aware people will have heard of. Aayon Hirsi Ali is hardly a rare exception to information concerns, the betrayal of which would almost certainly lead to her death. This issue is so commonplace that practically every government on the planet has a legal framework in place to help move these people between and among countries outside of the ordinary processes because to do otherwise is all but to guarantee the deaths of the very people the systems have been designed to keep alive.

    Some of them invariably will be unpleasant, up to and including the deaths of some people who have real enemies – the only real protection from whom comes from the specific, purposeful exclusion of information.

    It’s easy to say that we need more access to information and all of that jazz; as I said, in a utopia it would be great. But, also as I said, we don’t live in such a world.

    And I’m not taking your short blog article to be the sum total of his work, nor did I take the one bit from your article to be the sum total of your whole article. I’m pointing out that these ‘privacy’ groups have legitimate issues that cannot be ignored and poo-pooed as the extreme cases, or the absurd ones. And it’s because there really are people in the world who really mean to do tremendous damage to others, and it’s completely nonsensical to say that the propagation of information moots that point.

  4. #4 Kevin
    January 14, 2012

    Just want to clarify – “knee-jerk” was my wording. Also, to be clear, I wasn’t calling your arguments reductio ad absurdem, I was labeling my own.

    There are people who right now, this moment, today, want to arrange my country’s ways such that I should be executed for having sex.

    This seems to argue for combating bigotry, rather than increased privacy. Germaine to this discussion is the notion of being in the closet vs not. A lot of people suffered (and continue to suffer) by coming out, but I think there’s a strong case to be made that increase publicness about homosexuality has lead to enormous leaps in tolerance (though clearly not enough). Of course, people shouldn’t be forced out of the closet (except homophobic bigots maybe), but this is a case where many people argued for a long time that sexuality should be a private matter, though being private about it prevented our society from advancing.

    I’m pointing out that these ‘privacy’ groups have legitimate issues that cannot be ignored and poo-pooed as the extreme cases, or the absurd ones

    Totally agree. But this book is publicness advocacy, and I think a lot of the concerns raised should be also be taken seriously. If you do read the book, let me know what you think – I’d be interested to hear how you find the arguments fully flushed out.

  5. #5 Justicar
    January 14, 2012

    This seems to argue for combating bigotry, rather than increased privacy.

    And there’s some connection to keep the group alive and safe which is being so threatened for a period of time sufficiently long to outlast the perpetuation of the bigotry. =P

    Yes, there’s a connection between the number of gays and lesbians (trans and all the rest in the ever growing alphabet of the ‘community’) being visible and how that shifts the degree of normalcy people associate with it. However, there’s a flipside to it, and there’s generally a colossal backlash for involuntarily outing someone else. This is perfectly consistent with my position of people being able to decide for themselves what risk they’re willing to take, and to what extent. There are some gays and atheists who in my estimation are in fairly stable and solid positions which would be unaffected by owning up to either, but I would not dream of making that decision for them because that says, explicitly, that I am the arbiter of what degree of risk they’re supposed to take on my behalf. It also has the smack of saying that I know better than they know what the full set of circumstances which bear on theirs are.

    Further, I want to add that this position is not just consistent with my own personal view on the matter, but is fully consistent with the general advice one would receive from any ‘privacy’ group: evaluate the risk and benefits, and make the decision on as full an understanding of the situation as you can. There is nothing whatever inconsistent with saying that sexuality is a private matter of concern and that one is allowed to discuss it publicly, or not – entirely on their own motivations.

    Consider any private matter you’d care to, and the fact that it’s a matter of private concern doesn’t foreclose the ability for people to, on their own advice and in their own judgment, discuss it in the context of public society and culture. For some people, the balance of equities will indicate not to discuss it; whereas, for others the balance will be the obverse position. For a larger segment of us, it’s a combination of the two. I’m perfectly open about being gay and an atheist, and I’m somewhat known on the intertubez; however, I also take security concerns into account by not disclosing my name and other personal information which could make me personally at risk in a way that technology affords the converse.

    I get that you’re saying it’s a complex and nuanced issue, but I’m trying to avoid a conversation that one has to be very, very learned to be as wrong as possible. However, consider even a low level celebrity: some non-trivial group of people are so utterly enamored of knowing every minute detail of their lives. One can say that this is a consequence of being a celebrity, but it doesn’t change the fact that the only way to make certain there’s a line drawn between public and not-public information is to personally take steps to restrict said information.

    Because if you don’t, people who want it are going to work hard to find it.

    I might read the book; I have a long list of ones waiting for my eyes. However, I do like that you keep writing about its ideas being ‘flushed’ out instead of ‘fleshed’ out. =^_^=

    It’s what made me think of the bowel movement as an example to use.

  6. #6 Kevin
    January 14, 2012

    I think your argument is consistant with Jarvis’ views as well, he’s just pointing out the benefits of publicness, and making the case that they may outweigh the fears of the privacy advocates in ways that aren’t being considered.

    The coming out example, I think is a good illustration of this point. For a long time, people did not consider the wider benefits of being public, and most made the (completely understandable) choice to stay in the closet. When people did start coming out in larger numbers, surely there people thinking that they were crazy, or that the risks were too high, but I, for one, think that the sacrifice those early advocates made have been a huge benefitt to our society. Which is not to say that, had I been alive in the 60′s and known a gay person in the closet, that I should have outed him. And it’s also not saying that a gay man that didn’t come out in the 60′s was in any way a bad person.

    People involved in the Arab Spring took huge risks with being open about their discontent, and many were killed or imprisoned for it – but I think most would agree that their risks and sacrifices have had a huge benefit. Which, again, is not to say that the people who didn’t risk their lives were bad people.

    I’m not intending to equate the struggles of gay people or people under oppressive regimes with the desire for publicness on the internet, but I think that people like Jarvis are taking risks and encouraging other people to take those risks if they can, because the potential benefits are so large.

  7. #7 Justicar
    January 14, 2012

    I’m not intending to equate the struggles of gay people or people under oppressive regimes with the desire for publicness on the internet, but I think that people like Jarvis are taking risks and encouraging other people to take those risks if they can, because the potential benefits are so large.

    Contra-many people online, intellectually honest and thoughtfully reflective people should not need to be told that an analogy between two groups one narrow issue isn’t equating the general properties of one with the other. But, unfortunately, the world isn’t full of reflective people – if you’re comparing one narrow feature against another then you’re really just saying that what one group has to contend with is just the same as the other.

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