different ways of not caring about data privacy

Yet another big data post after yet another big data lecture I went to…
It wasn’t the first time that I heard someone (it wasn’t the lecturer) mentioning ‘our teenagers’ (= grew up with smartphones) and ‘Americans in general’ versus everything older than teenagers in Germany/Europe (= the data-protective ones) when attempting to contrast different attitudes towards privacy and data collection. Only this time I found myself bored by this particular demographic category-merger to a degree that I started wondering about it. Note that in the following I intentionally won’t position myself or give judgement in any direction.

As always with talk about contrasting categories this is bumpy stereotype-landscape with various traps and a high likelihood to be unfair to the margin-folks. Nevertheless, those irritations of the data-protective ones regarding the lack of privacy-sensitivity of the other party can certainly be widely experienced. Both from this side of the ocean to the other, as well as from the upper side of the generational spectrum to the lower one – and of course the same irritations exist into the other directions respectively.

Let’s look at those feelings one might get being faced with potentially violated privacy through massive data collection from various governmental and corporate entities; loss of control, someone else knows more about me than myself, my secrets are exposed, I could be blackmailed with secrets others shouldn’t know, I am just a data-point in the masses and they’ll squeeze me for the marketing-juice to manipulate me in wanting something, anger about the dream of global interconnectedness turning into a profit-machine, they’ll steal from our companies and therefore we’ll lose the leading edge… something like that?

Ok, but instead of focusing on the different ways of ‘caring’ (being sensitive about privacy) I’d like to look at the different kinds of not caring instead, which I think are of very different nature even so they may appear the same.

From the few times I have been in the US plus ‘remote-impressions’ I assume not to be totally off by assessing that the freedom of the individual is pronounced to a degree that it looks something like this in many (most definitely not in all) minds: “F**k this, my lifestyle comes first and devil-may-care. I do have this personality, this views and preferences and I don’t mind anyone knowing that. And if you make fun of me I either sue you or have a good laugh with you, but I will not change anything I like or believe in no matter what happens – I’d rather slam you with my personality all day long!”. To put it ‘positively”; the core of the character of such individuals is ‘extremely solid’. Additionally there must be a strong sense of ‘our government has to protect us’, which is made sure to be reaffirmed from various angles by multipliers. I can only imagine the intense shock waves that 9/11 must have sent through society, allowing for any and all measurements to be taken to ensure this from never happening again. From this perspective (‘super-solid devil-may-care personalities’ plus ‘anything to protect our country’) it makes sense that someone under those influences won’t be bothered much, if at all, by being absorbed into a gigantic data-sphere at any given opportunity, no?

Europeans (yeah, categories…) on the other hand can of course also have ‘extremely solid’ personalities, but the sense of being rooted in history is understandably much stronger, which might just contribute to some humbleness – and the cultural codes are mostly suggesting some amount of reservation when it comes to conveying what you are all about.

So… but what’s with the teenagers? My impression is, that the influence of a parent-generation that has finally gotten rid of war-traumata, of omnipresent freedom of choice, of video games etc. has bred personalities (among many lost, hurt and broken ones of course) that ‘don’t take themselves so seriously’. Now, that term is easily said… but it actually has a lot of weight! Patchwork, curricula vitae, cultural inheritance and influence are all getting increasingly colourful – if you don’t like what you are, then you’ll change it. You can shape the story of your (1st world country -) life as easy as you can navigate through a video game (exaggerated). It’s ok to use dating sites to find a match, it’s just too many people to “go through manually”, the quantification and shaping of my profile is an easy exercise. At this point I can’t help but mentioning 9gag (and sites like spleen24) – an aggregator for memes and funny pictures – it might have deserved its own post but it fits nicely in here. While it would be easy to put this aside as a waste of time I find it very interesting to observe the hidden shaping and amplification of attitudes by means of funny pictures. I’d say the community there is a mirror of a set of ethics and morals that you’d consider modern and leading edge in many ways – that includes also making fun of this very set in irritating and offending ways if you are not used to it. And of course there is lots of BS on it that doesn’t fit at all under the noble subtext that I just granted it. Nevertheless I’d claim that there is actually a lot of conveying going on of modern values. The dirty giggles you have from some nasty post about something you would only talk about when being extremely drunk, those are at the same time legitimizing the unspoken a little bit more and show you that others have similar awkward quirks. When you turn your smartphone to your buddy to share the giggle you allowed that unspoken to be listed as ‘things we giggled together about and may refer to from now on’ in your relationship book. So without labelling (or knowing?) it that way I am tempted to see sites like 9gag as a self-educational (“standardization of morals”?) tool for the (mostly young) masses ‘on the Internet’ (besides being addictive time dumps). Anyway, all of this to say that I think when teenagers express their lack of concern about privacy-issues it is because they are not as afraid of being exposed to secret forces and manipulated as are the generations above them. Personalized advertisement? That’s great, helps me navigating in the ocean of choices. Targeted ads? Ok cool, let’s see if this is convincing enough to get me to buy that stuff – otherwise I’ll just unlike that page. Data farms storing s**t about me that I don’t even know myself? Ok whatever, that’s their waste of storage, not my problem. Data aggregators compiling a sophisticated psychological profile of me? Neat, can I see that? Maybe it helps me design my next elegant turn in my handcrafted resume… ok, I’ll better stop before the burlesque takes over.

So to summarize; even so the different kinds of not caring about data privacy may appear the same, I suggest they are of almost opposite nature. Let us now let go of ‘Americans’ and ‘teenagers’ and generalize; on the one side you have very rigid devil-may-care personalities that don’t mind being tracked because they think it wouldn’t change anything anyway regarding their lifestyle that is carved into stone. And on the other side you have very flexible personalities that are not afraid to have their secrets exposed or to take touchpoints with data-synthesis-results as stimulus/provocation to outgrow that old (data) model of themselves…

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Benjamin Aaron Degenhart

Currently pursuing a Masters in Computational Science and Engineering at TU Munich.

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