Orwell was right. We now live in a world where we're constantly watched. It's not just grainy black and white footage captured by security cameras in banks and supermarkets. With a few keystrokes, I can find color photographs of tens of millions of people doing very personal things, like hanging out with friends and family, going on dates, drinking, or just goofing around. I can see wedding photos, birthday photos, and photos of people at science fiction conventions dressed in costumes that do not flatter them.
What Orwell didn't guess was that we'd be the ones recording our own lives in detail and sharing things willingly, even eagerly.
Some people are outraged by the fact that the NSA is collecting data on their phone calls, intercepting emails, and doing other sinister stuff behind your back, like seeing what you're reading on Kindle. But, we think nothing of signing contracts with corporations to gather data on us for commercial exploitation. Google searches through your emails on g-mail for keywords they can use to target you with advertising. Facebook mines your relationships and likes not just for advertising, but to identify larger trends that might prove valuable. Amazon has a pretty good guess about the next album you might purchase. When you shop at a lot of real world stores, you agree to let them keep a data base of your purchases in exchange for discounts and coupons. Instead of being creeped out that there are major corporations who know what underwear you have on, we're glad that we can buy their products at ten percent off.
We have strict laws about what medical information can be shared and who it can be shared with, but every day when I sign onto Facebook I learn that someone or their sister or their best friend has just been diagnosed with cancer. We announce who we're sleeping with by linking that we're in a relationship, and the whole world gets informed when we stop sleeping with them.
We'd never think of going to a job interview in a bathing suit, but fill web pages with photos of ourselves sunning by the pool.
Most people wouldn't like it if they were constantly followed around by police. But, most people with cell phones really appreciate that the phone company can keep track of them as they travel. With my GPS enabled smart phone, I'll sometimes be out hiking and suddenly get a text from Cheryl commenting on the scenery surrounding me, since she can watch the progress of my hike on Endomondo and see via satellite photo where I am. Rather than find this unnerving, I feel an extra sense of security knowing that I can go into remote places and not be in danger of falling and breaking a leg and languishing away where no one can find me.
Judging from the current state of things, it would seem like we didn't value privacy all that much. We'll trade it away for convenience and coupons and credit cards, for free apps and 15 seconds of fame--or 15 words on twitter.
Of course, some people do care about their privacy. They do care about the information that's available about their health, relationships, and finances. It's going to be a tough life for these people, since they will increasingly find themselves locked out of the modern economy. In an age of streaming, you won't even be able to become a TV watching recluse disconnected from the rest of the world. Netflix is going to know 1000 secrets about you by your viewing choices.
All this sharing will come with consequences. Right now, I don't think employers have yet taken full advantage of all the information that's available to them. I imagine we're heading for a day when a comprehensive web search will be routine before you can be hired. I saw a Facebook post the other day where someone reviewed an episode of Game of Thrones as being an experience comparable to anal rape. This is the sort of crazy hyperbole that can be funny between friends. But, say you're hiring for a position in a service industry. Do you want to take a chance on someone who finds rape jokes acceptable in a public forum?
Every day, I see people post strong political commentary. I post strong political commentary. Today, there are numerous examples of prominent people who have lost jobs and/or fans because of political opinions that weren't particularly radical up until the moment that they were. Every opinion we type down is going to be fair game for employers. Some of it will be a wash. If you're conservative, and applying to work in a gun store, you're in luck. A liberal applying for a job at a health food store? Probably not much of a problem. But, increasingly, we'll find that every thing we've ever put onto the internet is going to be available to employers, and I suspect we'll start seeing a new class of unemployable people. Don't like your present job and complain about it online? A potential employer is going to want to avoid working with a griper. Does posting your health woes bring waves to sympathy and support? Yay, but a potential employer might secretly consider whether its worth hiring someone still fighting cancer. It might be illegal to even consider this, but if the information is out there, I suspect not everyone will be strong enough to avoid the temptation of peeking at stuff you've made public.
I predict that as employers begin to make more aggressive use of social media data in hiring decisions, we'll see a return to an almost neo-Victorian era of politeness. We'll be aware that anything we might say online--in a public forum or even an email we assumed to be private--could become a permanent stain on our reputation. We'll recognize that, even if we try to keep our lives offline, there are a thousand people around us will cell phones aimed at us the second we do anything remotely interesting. I could be wrong, of course. It may be that baser human instincts will prevail, and fifty years from now so many people will have embarrassing photos or loudmouthed, poorly punctuated rants floating around that we'll all just shrug and figure that's part of the human condition. No one will be judged for such behavior. But, we might also see a growing machinery of outrage, interest groups ready to pounce on the slightest transgression, so that we'll all be thinking twice about what we say and do. It won't be just big brother watching. Everyone from here to the end of time will be watching.
So, watch out.