I have noticed a lot of people my age and older (or even younger, in their 30's), have an opinion of teenagers and twenty-somethings which I could caricature this way:
"These kids, they don't understand the dangers of the Internet. They post pictures of themselves, they over-share details on Facebook, they have no understanding of the privacy risks. They will regret this when they get older." [grimace and sad shaking of head]
Here's the thing: they're wrong. The youngsters actually, in an intuitive way, understand privacy much better than folks as old as I am, although because it is intuitive (owing to growing up with the Internet always being there) they aren't able to verbalize it very well. In this essay, I'll see if I can.
First, let's go back in time about 10,000 years. The typical human lived in a hunter-gatherer group of 100 people. They might change groups once in their life, if they were female (if they mated with a male from another group), or they might stay in the same group their whole life. Either way, they worked, played, learned, ate, slept with the same group of people, for many years. Anything which the entire group didn't see for themselves about your life, they soon would hear about. Humans are infamous gossips, and there is no reason to think that hunter-gatherers were any less so.
So, if you did something that was foolish on an epic scale in your childhood (but lived), it would more or less scar you for life. The story of the thing you did would follow you forever. There was no running away to the city to leave behind all those people who knew you as a gangly adolescent, and reinventing yourself as someone cooler and more polished. You were who you were, everyone knew it, they knew your strengths and your weaknesses, and they knew your past. If they weren't there for it, they had been told about it, and there was no escape.
For the last few thousand years, you could substitute "peasant village" for "hunter gatherer group" in the above description, but everything else would be pretty much the same as regards privacy. There was none. There were still secrets, of course, but a secret is something you tell no one, not something you tell these people over here, while remaining confident that those other people over there, who you interact with, will never know what the first group knew. There was only one group, and if any of them know, they all know.
In the last hundred years or so, it has become the case that the typical human lives in a city. Cities are much older than that, but until relatively recently almost all humans still lived in small villages. City-folk were infamous as being prone to all kinds of vice that country folk were not. Why is that? Because city folk could lead double (or triple) lives; they could work in one group, slip away to the bar or opium den or brothel after work, and then come home to family, and no one in these separate circles need know about the others. City folk assumed that they could lead these separate lives, because the human brain cannot keep track of more than 100-200 people or so, and cities were larger than that.
In fact, you can make a pretty good correlation, in primates, between brain size (ok, "neocortex ratio", but you get the idea) and group size. From this relationship, we can say that humans are equipped to deal with group size of around 150 at the upper limit. More than that, and there are problems keeping track of who everyone is, and treating them accordingly.
Which, really, is exactly what has happened. In the last couple centuries (and especially during the last one), we have lost the ability to keep track of who's who, and what they've done. All of America was basically founded by people running away from their past. I exaggerate (fleeing religious persecution had a big part too), but only a little. The American West was also filled with people running away from their previous lives back East.
But, it's not as if we just gave up on knowing who people were or what they'd done. We invented courts, contracts, laws, religious edicts, and the rest, in large part to try to replace the (simpler and more effective) power of reputation in keeping people's behavior within constructive boundaries. In a smaller group (less than 150 individuals), we can rely on the fact that the worst offenders will be known. If something ends up stolen (or someone ends up dead), we can probably say who did it without any evidence, because we know all the people, and have known them all their lives, and by a process of elimination we can quickly narrow down to at most only a few suspects. When questioning them we have a lifetime of knowledge of them to recognize who is acting weird in their answers (i.e. lying). Once you have 10,000+ people in a city, these methods break down entirely, and we have never come up with one that worked as well. Monarchies and religious edicts are all an attempt to replace the real and nearly always effective methods of a small hunter-gatherer group in figuring out who had transgressed. Neither monarchies nor religious edicts were very good replacements, but the need was real. For most of human existence, most people were treated as they were because of how they'd behaved, but in the last century or two this has pretty much broken down.
We shouldn't romanticize this: hunter gatherer groups, and peasant villages, were ruthless with outsiders. Perhaps this was precisely because all their methods of knowing whether a person was trustworthy would not work with outsiders, or perhaps it was due to visceral us-vs-them psychology. Either way, in order to have large scale trade or urbanization, you needed priesthoods, monarchs, or bureaucratic governments to allow strangers to do business with one another, or travel safely to distant places. In the absence of reputation, you need a firm hand on the throat of every stranger you meet.
We are entering, however, into a new age. Or, perhaps, we are just leaving the "new" age, and going back to the one we had before.
You could say it began with credit ratings, or you could say it really began with eBay reputation, or you could say it began with the ability to use search engines to investigate any person you met. However you look at it, the ancient methods of knowing who to trust are returning, in electronic form.
The typical western 50-year old might consider a concern for one's 'reputation' or 'good name' to be a quaint relic of the past, admirable perhaps but a bit old-fashioned. It is not, and the typical 20-year old gets this, in a way that their parents don't. Managing one's reputation is something that 20-year olds know very well for the most part, and those who do not are the ones who are subject to head-shaking from their peers.
What has not occurred yet, to most 30+ year olds, is that having no presence on the internet, or having a very groomed and minimal and sparse one, is coming to be suspicious. We have known for a while that having no credit record can be more of a problem than having one with a few blemishes; a similar pattern is beginning to emerge online. If you have no social networking accounts, no blog, and no references to you in any way online, right now a person might be willing to think this just indicates that the person has not done much online. Within 10 years, it will instead indicate that you've done something you needed to erase, and you've either changed your name or hired someone to scrub your online past (such companies already exist). This is going to be suspicious, in much the same way that a Stone Age hunter-gatherer would find any stranger to be suspicious. If I don't know everything about you, how can I trust you? If we meet someone on the street who is wearing a ski-mask and muffling their voice, we are less inclined to trust them. In the very near future, someone without much of an online presence will be regarded in much the same way; what are they trying to hide?
In the 90's, we heard the term "global village" a lot, but the full truth of the analogy was, I think, lost on most. We ARE becoming a global village, and the gossip-based, reputation-based method of dealing with other people is re-emerging along with it. In essence, the Internet and related technologies have augmented our brain's ability to keep track of people in large groups. Our ability to keep track of large numbers of people has finally caught up with our ability to build cities to house large numbers of people.
Scott McNealy is said to have replied, when asked about the impact on privacy of a new piece of technology from Sun Microsystems (of which he was CEO):
"There is no privacy. Get over it."This response is not one well calculated to endear you to others, but it is the only truthful one. The governments of Europe and North America may or may not attempt to protect our privacy, but it will be as (in)effective as the war on drugs (and perhaps as destructive in the attempt). Privacy was a transient phenomenon, that existed only in the historical window between when we started living in large groups, and when we found ways to keep track of our relationships in large groups. The only things that will be secret are those you tell no one, including no computer.
One thing that governments will definitely attempt, is to prevent us from knowing what THEY are doing. In a hunter-gatherer group of 100 or so individuals, the one(s) in charge didn't have much ability to keep the others from knowing what they were doing. It is becoming the same for governments, and they hate that. Whether it's a politician trying to say one thing to a fundraising dinner and another to major newsmedia, and then finding out someone at the fundraiser had a cellphone videocam, or a lone individual able to leak more documents than anyone can read, new communications technologies are making it harder to keep things secret.
Not that we can expect them not to try for a while longer.
I have heard 20-somethings say things along the lines of, "No one from our generation will ever be able to run for president, we've all got too many embarrassing things online," and then laugh. The joke, of course, is that eventually somebody who's 20-something WILL be elected president, and their online embarrassments won't prevent it, in much the same way that the past drug use of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama didn't stop them from becoming president, because too many people their age had done the same when they were young. On the other hand, if you have done something that others your age didn't do, you can expect that fact to stay with you(r reputation) forever.
There is no privacy. Get over it. Reputation is what matters now, and it will follow you all your life, wherever you go.
[click here to return to 1] Only the summary is free here, but it gives the basic idea. There's another summary, with a good graph of the relation, available here
[click here to return to 2]Incidentally, I believe this is why, when "the scene", i.e. a subculture within a city, an extended group of friends and friends of friends, gets bigger than about this size, it is subject to schisms. Someone always tries to split the scene. Some subcultures are more subject to this kind of self-inflicted drama than others, but as far as I can tell they all do it once the group gets too big to keep track of.
[click here to return to 3]For a graph of the relative frequency of the phrase in english language books, look here.