Privacy and the Rapid Pace of Change
I often wonder what a visitor from the past would think about modern life. Perhaps because of shared ties to Kentucky, Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln are almost always my imaginary time travelers. What would they think about supermarkets, central air conditioning, automobiles, televisions, and airplanes? What would impress them most?
In the century between 1765 when Daniel Boone would have been 31, and 1865 when 56 year-old Lincoln was assassinated, the pace of change quickened as America entered the Industrial Age. People might have thought him a bit backward, but Daniel could still have lived in Lincoln’s time more or less the way he had in his own time.
Going back a hundred years, except for maybe learning the native tongue, wouldn’t have meant much change for either man. The skills needed for survival were more or less the same. In fact, aside from any language barrier, Abe and Daniel would likely have little trouble adjusting to life two or three hundred years earlier.
Fast forward to 1965. Without a whole lot of help, poor Dan and Abe would have a hard time adjusting to the unfamiliar world of Madmen’s Don Draper. Lincoln wouldn’t be happy that all he got was his face on a penny when Daniel Boone got his own television show. Both men would notice how much less they could buy with that penny.
Jump fifty years to today. Even Don Draper would have a hard time recognizing the world he’d find himself in. Daniel and Abe would be lost. Credit cards? Sushi? Reality television? Internet porn?
You won’t find this in history books, but Daniel fought the Indians because raids forced him to hole up with Rebecca, his ten children, and every other white family in the area in tiny little Fort Boonesboro. Having visited the reconstructed fort, I believe being crammed into a space smaller than today’s McMansions with all those people was a traumatic experience that spawned a lifelong desire to keep moving west to get away from his neighbors.
Lincoln, on the other hand, would likely have a broader understanding of privacy issues. As president, he lived in the public spotlight — a dim glow compared with the scrutiny public figures endure today. I bet he’d have something clever to say about the impact of 24-hour news cycles on the productivity of politicians. He’d probably have a hard time wrapping his head around the complexity of the modern world.
Just about everything I do is tracked by someone. Google reads my email, monitors the web sites I visit, and watches my searches. Facebook mines every like, comment, and status update I post for potential advertisers. My cellphone service provider knows who I call or text, the apps I use, and where I am at any given moment. Video cameras capture my every move when I drive on some roads, do business in certain establishments, or walk around downtown. Thanks to debit and credit cards, financial institutions know more about what I do with my money than I do.
The sheer quantity of personal information out there gives me some comfort. Thousands of pieces of information exist for each and every one of the millions of people in this country. Unless I become a terrorist or engage in some other illegal activity on a grand scale, the likelihood the government will turns its focus on me personally is slim to none.
The government having access to tons of information about me is one thing. Personal information collected by businesses and used or sold for profit is another matter. In my opinion, I’m the only person who should make any money off my personal information. I mean, it is mine, right?
What will “they” know about me ten years from now? Twenty? I have no idea. But one thing for sure, it will be a lot more than they can find out about me today. Will I be able to find out as much about the companies that sell my information for profit? Probably not.
Thanks to Mr. Snowden, the secret that never was much of a secret is out in the open. Maybe our worthless elected leaders will take this opportunity to move more toward a European model, where the consumer’s privacy trumps any business interests. Whatever the government does, it won’t be enough.