This February, the acclaimed internet intellectual came to McGill University in Montreal to speak about internet privacy, an area he has been thinking a lot about lately.
The talk, Protecting our Tools of Publicness, summarized the major points from his recently published book, Private Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live.
An ardent defender of an open internet, Jarvis spoke about his worry that government regulation could stifle the web’s potential to improve our lives. As he explained: “We need to protect our great tool of publicness because we don’t know what it is yet.”
Even the terms “public” and “private” mean different things in the internet age, said Jarvis. This, in part, is because the web is changing the way we share information. But as Jarvis suggested, government regulations don’t reflect this shift.
He explained that we’re moving in the direction of complete transparency, so fighting to limit the ways information is shared is akin to sticking tires on a horse-drawn carriage. Society has moved on.
Here comes the revolution
Offering Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press as an analogy to enforce his argument, Jarvis explained that thanks to Gutenberg a lot more people became literate and a lot of political fallout happened as a result.
Sure there was bloodshed, but as the story goes, the printing press also gave rise to the middle class, public education, and unprecedented cultural self-awareness.
But no one really appreciated the impact of the invention until much later – at least one hundred years later.
Fast forward five centuries and here we are, at the cusp of another information revolution, said Jarvis.
As he explained, where once there were clusters of experts who wrote books on highly specialized topics, now there’s a network that enables instantaneous information flow. Everything is linked. Knowledge isn’t hierarchical anymore, but is instead remixed, curated and most of all, open to the public.
Throughout the talk, Jarvis emphasized that for better or worse, the internet has transformed the way we think about information, meaning our norms are changing, too.
These changes are pushing us towards a new kind of public, of which Jarvis is a fierce evangelist. “We should be open by default, secret by necessity,” and that’s true for government, corporations and our personal lives.
So instead of trying to limit the technological potential of the web through regulation, Jarvis argued that we should focus on how people and institutions choose to use that information.
For Jarvis, we’re only beginning to appreciate the implications of our changing norms. From governmental transparency (check Sweden’s national Twitter feed for proof) to social corporations, the curtain is being lifted.
Like it or not, he concluded, publicness is the new social norm, and limiting technology through regulation is akin to stopping the presses.