May 5, 2010

Who Wants Privacy?

As the Internet creeps into more aspects of daily life, an expert wonders what the effects of such widespread information sharing will be

By Marjorie Howard

When Sherry Turkle was a child, her grandmother, who had escaped persecution in Eastern Europe, brought her to a row of mailboxes in their Brooklyn apartment building to show her something about what she thought it meant to be an American. She said, “In Europe, the government can look at your mail; in America, it’s a federal offense for anyone to look in your mailbox or look at your mail.”

“What are we giving up, and how much did democracy really depend on a notion of individual privacy?” asked Sherry Turkle. Photo: Joanie Tobin

For Turkle’s grandmother, those mailboxes and the privacy they afforded were a symbol of freedom and democracy. Yet the way we communicate today—email, texts and postings to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter—is much less private, said Turkle, an MIT professor and expert on computer culture, at the 12th Richard E. Snyder President’s Lecture on April 26. She questioned the Internet’s impact not only on privacy but on democracy and even our sense of self.

“I’m very concerned about this, because Google, Loopt, Facebook . . . the things that depend on you putting information into a proprietary system, all these things are eroding our sense of our zone of privacy,” said Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. “What are we giving up, and how much did democracy really depend on a notion of individual privacy?”

Turkle quoted a web expert who said the way to deal with the loss of privacy is “to just always be good.” But her grandmother’s lesson at the mailboxes taught her to be a civil libertarian. “In a democracy, we all need to start with the idea that we all have something to hide, a zone that needs to be protected from our techno enthusiasms,” she said. “Sometimes a citizenry should not be good.”

As an example of how our ideas about privacy have changed, Turkle said that many years ago, she did a study that included an assessment of Americans’ attitudes about electronic highway toll collection. People were horrified at the idea. “Americans will not tolerate someone knowing where they are going in their cars,” she was told. “Cars are a symbol of our independence, and where you go is nobody’s business.” But now electronic toll collection devices are widespread, and the privacy debate has disappeared. 

Alone Together

Turkle is especially interested in how the Internet is affecting teenagers. Since 1995, she’s been studying how young people connect through virtual worlds, computer games, texting and social networking sites. What we see, she said, is a generation growing up that is “always on, always connecting.” Teens, she said, prefer not having face-to-face contact, because it’s easier to send a text than to risk rejection.

Turkle acknowledged the usefulness of social networking sites in making it easier to keep up with friends and providing opportunities to experiment with identity and with political involvement. But, she says, with every technology, “We have to ask: Are we more together? Are we more alone? Do we know how to have a moment when something is not happening? Can we have a moment that is unshared?”

“It’s a complex story,” said Turkle, the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. “We get sustenance from connectivity, but it can be disappointing. Teens can be loners, although they are never alone. Too often they have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. You feel you’re connected, but you’re not really communicating; or you’re communicating, but you’re not really connected.”

She reminded the audience that we are in what she calls the “early days” of the Internet and predicted there will be “pushback” as people begin to see its effects. One day we may even be willing to pay for email if comes with an assurance of privacy.

“We need to assess the effects and take action,” she said. “Talking about Internet addiction is a poor metaphor. If you’re addicted, you have to stop using the substance. We won’t stop using the phones and the Internet, so the word addiction puts you in the wrong frame of mind. We have to use them better, be in control. All these conversations are conversations we have to have. It’s not too late to have them.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

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