Privacy in the Age of Hyperconnectivity

Discussing the changing notions of privacy as society moves from physical storage and interaction, to digital, with Disegno.

Originally published on DisegnoDaily on Tuesday 19 May 2017.

During Salone del Mobile 2017, we partnered with Disegno¸ the leading design, architecture and fashion magazine to facilitate a panel discussion at Atelier Clerici in Milan exploring the idea of privacy in an age of hyperconnectivity. Chaired by Oli Stratford, Disegno’s editor-in-chief, the roundtable invited speakers Jurgen Bey of Studio Makkink & Bey, acting keeper of the Design, Architecture and Digital at the Victoria and Albert Museum Corinna Gardner, and Tim Parsons and Jessica Charlesworth of design studio Parsons and Charlesworth, to discuss changing notions of privacy as society moves from physical storage and interaction, to digital.

The Physics Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman was one of the leading theoretical physicists of the 20th century. Early in his career, however, Feynman was a junior researcher at the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. All the secrets of the project – research disclosing classified information about the atomic bomb – were kept in filing cabinets secured with padlocks.

Feynman amused himself by pointing out the laughable security measures at the research site. He made a habit of safecracking the filing cabinets to highlight their substandard security and leaving notes for his colleagues to find: “I borrowed document no. LA4312 – Feynman the safe-cracker.”

In spite of Feynman’s mischief, the Los Alamos facility had physical remoteness on its side to limit physical access. The modern equivalent of “Feynman the Safe-Cracker”, when data can be accessed remotely, is at best a mischievous hacker trying to prove a point and, at worst, a government agency bent on using your digital footprint to bolster its power. 

What, then, do we mean when we speak about security in an era when information has transcended the physical? What is the value of privacy in a hyperconnected world? How have society's conceptualisations of privacy changed and what design strategies have evolved to greet this new paradigm? In the spirit of hyperconnectivity, Disegno has curated a web of connecting points from the discussion.

Risking the Breach

While we know the risk of a digital breach of privacy is likely, we still opt to use digital platforms that are designed to collect, store, sell and utilise our data. 

Tim Parsons I think it’s become more risky as we’ve started to move away from the physical. When our notions of privacy were physically controllable, it was pretty easy for us to achieve privacy by closing a door or by physically shutting ourselves away. I think that it’s very problematic that it should be OK for everyone and anyone to see everything: for your potential new employer to look through your Facebook and assess your character, for instance. It’s this relationship between business and social life, the idea that we should be expected to share everything. The Feedback loops of being on social media and creating a bubble for ourselves ultimately benefits large corporations. It’s a design error.

Facilitating and Fragmenting Community

Hyperconnectivity creates an open forum for conversation and dissemination of information and education, while data collected from those interactions designs us into an echo chamber of our own curating – with or without our consent. 

Jurgen Bey The important thing to have is a collective, a public space, opening up. Ask those privacy questions later, because at the moment we’re building the gates before we even start to open them. I believe that we come from a private world, where you have your own house, your own car, your own things. We live in a world of insurance and locks, and the locks are only getting bigger; insurance is getting more and more expensive. The privacy you want comes at a very high price. Them there is this idea that if you have nothing to hide then everything should be available is seriously problematic, but it’s often used as an argument to say, “Well why not? Why don’t we monetise everyone’s search history? Why should that be a problem?” Then they put it in this positive light: We know your search history so we can give you a better service.

Privacy in a Digital Space and Surveillance

Societies were surveilled before the era of hyperconnectivity and leveraged physical space to do so. Although digital privacy is our primary modern preoccupation, information can still be leveraged and misused in the physical world. 

Corinna Gardner We should be mindful of what we can learn from the past. We were surveilled, and have been surveilled, through passages of history. But this sense of big data, government and commerce is arguably different now. One of the bigger questions is as to who owns my data and what they’re doing with it. Is that a design task? Where does responsibility sit? We in the design world feel that we have an agency or a sense of responsibility.

Tim Parsons A couple of years ago, at a school in Chicago, I set a very broad design project that was about students exploring various making processes. A very bright student was working on something where he was using a particular plastic sheeting: if you drew black lines on the sheeting and then exposed it to light, the sheeting would heat up more along the black lines and fold up like origami around those lines. To make this work you had to buy a particular kind of lamp, which he bought from Amazon. The police knocked on his door and wanted to search his apartment – it transpired that those are exactly the kind of lamps that are used to grow marijuana.Amazon had given the police his data; I couldn’t believe that something like that would be so freely given. 

Retreat from the Digital

Like the Los Alamos facility, remote spaces have retained a romanticised sense of facilitating spatial privacy. Whereas privacy once meant a return to the pastoral, the rise of digital space – which knows no physical bounds – now means a retreat from digitised space.

Jessica Charlesworth Being out in the wilderness is such a default way of thinking about being American, but that story is a luxury now. The idea of being out in the wilderness on your own doesn’t work. You now need to think about how you might survive in a public space while still being private? Do you shut yourself away digitally and physically?

Corinna Gardner There’s a Kickstarter product called the Light Phone. It only allows you to make and receive calls. The entire campaign is about regaining your sense of self and privacy, and about a march through the wilderness to achieve freedom from the digital world. This sense of being away from the noise of life is slightly different to a sense of privacy, be it physical or spatial, but the encroachment of the digital world is prompting us to think differently about what a sense of privacy is and about pushback. That pushback could be not wanting the digital world in your life.

Transparency and Civic Space

There can be no conversation about privacy without a conversation about transparency. Perhaps hyperconnectivity creates and facilitates a public forum wherein conversations about privacy and transparency are brought to light, whether in the physical or digital realm.

Corinna Gardner The idea behind Ways To Be Secret at the V&A was to create a space for public debate around these subjects. It’s not to form around one view or another, but to have a series of informed views. As a public institution with a public remit, talking about digital space is critically important. The objects we exhibited in Ways to Be Secret ranged from a selfie stick to a high-grade military mobile phone. It’s always a challenge for public institutions to think about how design and public life intersect: how we live together as citizens and what we design for the material world. It’s about thinking how objects can focus these big abstract questions. It’s not to close those questions down, but rather to open them up. I think that’s what public institutions should be doing. It’s a role for the state also, but we designers are privileged in our role in being able to shape some of these processes, some of these products, some of these objects.