Privacy in the Global Village, Part 1
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This morning, as part of my high-tech day job, the Urban Man has gone to tour a mass data storage facility, built on the prairie reaches of Minnesota. Outside the ground is sprinkled with crusty snow. Inside, they keep the place brightly lit, and almost as cold as the winter. I pass rows of refrigerator-sized boxes, all humming with cheerful terabytes of information. These might hold all the emails you ever sent from your office computer. All the web sites you ever visited from your desk. Logs of all the calls from all your phones, and maybe some of the calls themselves.
All the books in the Library of Congress could be stored in a lousy 20 terabytes on one or two of these boxes. Big companies often keep 50 or a hundred terabytes of data handy, and some of these boxes are designed so that the information can never be erased, by anyone. It could sleep here for a hundred years.
For a long time I thought the global village was a whole new world. This morning, strolling among the disk arrays, I wonder if it's true what they say: maybe we really are heading back to an older world.
Once upon a time, when you slogged out of some cold stone cottage in some muddy old-fashioned village, you always had to pass a wrinkled woman, wrapped in a shawl and seated on her earthen stoop. And every morning, this lady would give you the same knowing grin. She knew your cow was sick. She knew your lad was up to no good with the neighboring lass, and she could repeat, word for word, what you had said about the local priest in a bitter moment down at the alehouse, five years before.
There was no privacy and no anonymity in that old-fashioned village, because this lady never forgot...anything. You had to nod and smile back, because you knew you could never escape the things you had said, or the deeds you had done.
Today, I figure the old woman has taken her shawl and moved into this cold and brightly-lit mass data storage facility, just down the road from my wired cottage in the global e-village.
And for a moment, I shiver.
Then say to myself: Isn't this what the Urban Man wanted all along? Here I am fretting about my privacy, but thirty years ago, didn't I fret about the restless and untraceable nature of modern life? Wasn't I taught that the "anonymity of great cities" was one of the biggest problems of our day -- the source of crime and unaccountability?
Back in college, didn't I devour books by Margaret Mead, who described chummy villages where everyone knew each other's foibles? Isn't crime supposed to be practically nonexistent in those little backwaters? Aren't people supposed to be happier where everyone knows their name? Now that we're stamping out anonymity: who knows, maybe we're building a better world.
Flying back into L.A. next morning, I look out the airplane window at the endless grid. And I think, "Even down there, you can no longer escape your past." Block after block, people are happily googling one another. Cell phone calls are being triangulated and archived. DNA is being digitized. My own landing time will be recorded in some database, forever.
As the plane descends, I pick out a particular square on the grid, with a particular pink stucco house, and I imagine the old woman setting up in the doorway. She gives me that little grin, and like a good villager, I try to smile and nod, even as I roar overhead.
Copyright - 2004 by Marc Porter Zasada, All Rights Reserved
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