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Rushes Sequences - AC Grayling interview - London (Video)

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Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 18:30 UK time, Wednesday, 2 December 2009

AC Grayling is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, writer and commentator. He met with the programme three team to discuss the web's influence upon the changing relationship between people and privacy and the issues we might want to give serious consideration when sharing our data online.

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(Please note that this transcript is the 'raw data' text we receive from a transcription company. It is a tool commonly used in production to facilitate editing and review the content. We publish it for users in that same spirit, rather than it standing as a 'perfect' representation of the content.)

Anthony       Privacy matters because we all need a margin of, ah, discretion around our lives so that we can exercise some control over them.   The fact of the matter is that, ah, we've already long ago given up much of our privacy, as soon as we started to email and use mobile telephones.  But if you thought about what it would be like if your neighbours knew details of your bank account, or your medical record, or could listen in to your quarrels with your spouse, you would be very  disconcerted, because you would feel that you were losing control over areas of your life that just belonged to you.  That's why privacy really matters.  And the, the great worry that we have in the digital age is that we've already given so much of it up, both to private agencies and to public ones.

Intv    Um, how might we give up personal information online? 

Anthony        Every single time we go online, every time we look at a website, every time we send an email message, every time we make a phone call with our mobile telephones, we're exposing ourselves, we're stripping ourselves naked to the view of anybody who is interested to find out what we're doing.  Ah, we know already that private agencies are keen to, ah, look at the pattern of use of the internet that we indulge in, so that they can target advertising at us and, ah, governments in the western world, indeed in the world at large, are anxious to keep a, a record of who people are talking to, and what kind of information they're finding out,  so that they can detect patterns of, ah, ah, that suggest crime or, or terrorism in the offing.  And in all these ways, therefore, we expose ourselves to view through the use of these devices, not that we would want to give up using these devices, they're just so useful to us, but they do expose us to scrutiny.

Intv     So how valuable is our personal information? 

Anthony     If you think about all the different aspects of your life, ah, ranging from your income to your, to your health, to your relationship with your employers, to your intimate relationships with your family, all the information, much of the information that's involved there is very, very important to you personally, it's very valuable to you, because you're able to manage it, ah, able to present yourself to other people, able to keep new ideas which are still rather tender and not ready for scrutiny, ah, you know, growing until they're ready to be aired publicly, in all these ways we've got this real need to, to have a wide margin of, of personal discretion around us.  And if other people know what's going on in our thoughts and in our personal records and communications, they've invaded that margin and they've made it less easy for us to control our own lives.

Intv      Um, should we be worried about this accumulation of personal information?  And if so, why?  What does it matter?

Anthony        We should be very worried, I think, ah, about the amount of data concerning ourselves, including very personal, private, intimate data about ourselves, which is now out there in the public domain, both in private and in public hands.  We should be worried about it for a large number of reasons, but one central reason is that this information is stored digitally in wh, one of another location, out there, in a way that we may not have access to ourselves, and it's a very, very easily manipulated, it's very easily changed by somebody who, ah, is either, ah, lazy, incompetent or malevolent in some way.  It's very easy for that information to be shared and for patterns of information to, ah, seem to appear to certain agencies that could put one under suspicion, even if one weren't, ah, a suspicious individual.  In other words, the prospect for misinformation for, ah, corruption of our personal information and for mistakes to be made about our personal information, is massively increased by the fact that there is so much of it out there and so much of it is collated by different agencies.  Ah, inefficiency and, um, patchiness of information is a great protection of personal privacy and the more efficient the systems are that collect and collate data about us, the more the potential is for mistake and misuse.

Intv         Would you have any examples of a breach of, of this? 

Anthony        Well we, we've had examples recently in the United Kingdom of, um, very sensitive information about individuals - health records, military police records - being lost because they've been left on a CD in the back of somebody's motor car.  Ah, we've had examples of people being, ah, able to hack into what should be very, very secure systems, for examples, ah, as I speak there is an extradition warrant out for an individual in the United Kingdom who hacked into the United States navy, military, NASA and the Defence Department computer, ah, nearly a hundred times.  Now this, this kind of thing is tremendously worrying, because you can imagine that if a private investigator, or the police, or a criminal organisation was trying to blackmail somebody, or trying to get personal information, or just trying to get your or my credit card numbers, that it would be relatively easy for them to do it, given the porousness of, ah, these, um, data storage instruments and the fact that it's very, very difficult to keep them secure and to police them properly.  So by giving up so much of our personal information, as we do every time we buy something online, or every time we talk to somebody on a, on a mobile phone, we're exposing ourselves to risk.  And one can think, ah, that, ah, in the records of, for example, British banks, ah, people claiming that their credit card numbers have been misused, there would be thousands and thousands of such cases every year.

Intv            ......... and the importance of it? 

Anthony         Most people are unaware of how exposed they've made themselves.  Um, I mean you talk to young people, for example, who've got their own personal blog sites, or their presence on YouTube or Facebook, ah, and, um, that they may come to regret doing some of things they did, ah, on, on video on the internet, or saying the things that they did, ah, especially when they start applying for jobs and, um, employers begin to look back through the, the digital record of, of these people, the trace that they've left in the public domain.  But, em, quite unaware, every single day that we do something digital, we are potentially leaving a trace out there and that if somebody wanted to find out where we were shopping, what we were doing, who we were communicating with, ah, why we were doing it, what websites we, ah, were logging onto, they could do it.  It, it's a very, very exposed set of media, these, ah, ah, electronic communication devices that we now use and, ah, the point is that they're fantastically convenient and none of would be, would willingly give them up, but what we would want, if we really thought carefully about what it meant whenever we used these devices, we would want much, much greater individual security for our communications. 


Anthony        The impact of the digital revolution on some of the traditional media, especially book publishing and, ah, newspapers, has, has taken a surprisingly long time to work through.  And ten years ago, people in the publishing industry were saying, how long will we be producing books on paper still?  And ten years on, they're saying it's amazing that they're still doing it and indeed, they are still doing it. But we're beginning to see the cracks in, in the ice flows and, and things really are changing there.  The newspaper industry, in particular, has already begun to suffer from the impact of digitalisation, ah, we, we're seen revenues, advertising drop, sales drop, we've seen all the major newspapers in the western world thinking about having an online only presence and trying to work out how they're going to, ah, afford to survive if they do that.  So, um, that is something which, even as we speak, is, ah, happening and the, but these things, when they begin to happen, happen so fast that, ah, it, it may be, you know, ah, out of date, these comments, um, by the time they're broadcast.  In the publishing industry, ah, ah, a slightly different, um, situation arises, which is this, that, ah, content, that is the words, the stories, the, the, the history, whatever it might be that goes into a book at the moment, that content still has to be provided, so there still have to be writers.  Ah, one of the great, em, sort of downsides of the internet is the sheer amount of rubbish on it, the sheer amount of misinformation, the sheer amount of, of nonsense.  You know, one wouldn't be, probably, overstating the case to say that about 90% of, of what's on the internet is not really all that reliable, or worth  much and if you are a very careful user of the internet, you know to, to check the kind of information that comes, ah, ah, over.  Because misinformation is endlessly iterated, it's a very inflationary mechanism, um, that the internet, it, it's, ah, it amplifies nonsense.  So there are always going to have to be expert filters.  I mean what happens at the moment is, somebody writes a book, an agent and a publisher, ah, look at a book, they think if it's worthwhile, they're prepared to take a, a punt on it, and they publish it, in, in the hope that they'll be able to recover their costs, even make a profit.  And that filter means that quite a lot of what gets through onto the bookshelves in a, in a bookshop, is of a reasonable standard.  Ah, now people who can self publish on the internet are, are pushing out badly written and, ah, you know, ah, ah, junk, um, there'll be some good stuff in there too, of course, as there are some very, very good blog sites, but a lot of blog sites are really not worth the reading.  So the, the need for an expert filter is going to remain, and then at the end, it's going to be the reader, the person who wanted to read that book.  So those three things, which exist now, and have existed always, will stay.  The thing that will change is the actual, physical nature of how that content is delivered, the vehicle.  Is it going to be, um, the PC screen, the home computer screen that people read books on?  Is it going to be an electronic device that you can read books on?  Or is it still going to be the paper device?  Some people argue that the, the paper book will never vanish, for the, the same reason as, um, ah, was made plain by that character, that body that was found stuck in a glacier up in the Alps and had been there for ten thousand years, you may remember, and that, that body had around its neck a handbag.  And a handbag is a very simple, extremely useful device, which is why its lasted for ten thousand years and, and maybe the book, which has been around for about five hundred years, will continue to last, because it's very portable, it's very enjoyable, it smells nice when it's new, ah, and, and people may still want to have those things in their houses, because books do furnish a room.  On the other hand, the portability, the convenience and the fact that you can have a, a thousand books on one tiny little handheld device, ah, means that, em, that will probably become the preferred vehicle in future.  So it looks as though that's going to come on stream, books may remain for collectors and they'll become very expensive items and, ah, and older people will prefer them to the, to the reading on screen devices, but it's inevitable that the digital revolution will result in a great change in the way that words are transmitted to readers, it's already happening, um, it's creating all sorts of problems, economically and otherwise, the, ah, technology is not yet good enough.  Um, it may be that in a few years time, we'll have an electronic reader device which is  exactly like a book, but you slip your disc down the spine and then you turn what feel like paper pages, but it could be any book, it could be Pride & Prejudice, it could be Gone With The Wind, it could be War & Peace, you would just choose at the press of a button.


  • Comment number 1.

    I feel strongly that the "digital revolution" has had a substantially negative effect on traditional advertising, bending towards fads and controversy to play the short game. A prime example is the internet-only car insurance campaign at Get Swiftcovered, where the main cheer-leader of the campaign was Iggy Pop. A former rockstar with a history of drugs and heavy drinking, becoming the voice of an insurer owned by AXA? It turned out that this fading star couldn't even get a policy with the insurer he was promoting. The whole campaign was (excuse the pun) a car crash looking to happen, cheaply selling the sole of its brand for internet hits and publicity.


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