The information society has given birth to a popular new German word – “gläserner Mensch”, meaning a human being made of glass or simply “transparent individual”. It encapsulates Germans’ widespread fears that Google, Facebook, the state and others record every bit of information about them. Unfortunately, this disproportionate emphasis on privacy and data protection threatens to suppress innovation. A call for a more balanced discourse.
“Hey Google, what do you want to do tonight?”
Take Google as an example. The company’s image has suffered since the media started portraying it as an information superpower with the secret intention to learn literally everything about us. “Buzz”, Google’s latest social networking tool, is just another step to make the individual even more transparent.
The vocabulary used to describe Google’s strategy draws from the realm of both secret intelligence as well as geopolitics. Google allegedly uses its powers of information gathering and processing to achieve world domination.
The dystopian idea of the “gläserner Mensch”, as a response to this threat, has dominated the German discourse on information technologies. It has pushed aside most discussions on innovation and business opportunities.
Can’t eat the cake and have it
Just to be clear, I fully agree that a lot of public discussion and subsequent legislation is still needed to deal with the consequences of new information technologies and their related business models.
We need to define what companies can and cannot do with the data they store and how transparent their activities need to be. We also need to put safeguards in place to guarantee that the state cannot just access any privately held information. In other words, I do not necessarily argue for less privacy.
However, I do argue that we should remember the opportunities and benefits that new means of information processing can bring. Google structures online information for us and attempts to present the most relevant pages (leaving aside SEO economics for now). Facebook responded to calls to make its News Feed more interesting and to reduce noise.
These, and many other services, require substantial data gathering and analysis. If we want these services, we need to share at least some information about us (again, we should still discuss how much information).
Room to breath
Overemphasizing data protection and privacy can be detrimental for innovation. Companies and their customers should get the chance to negotiate new data-based services by which they trade user data for user benefits. Yes, we need rules and regulation, but we also need room to breath for new ideas.
I would like to see a public discussion that keeps privacy and data protection in mind but also puts a much more optimistic spin on opportunities that arise with regards to information technologies and online services. We should not only ask “What harm does it do to process more information?”, but also “What else can we do with this information that may be useful?”.