Cultural notebook: the disadvantages of privacy

A century or two from now, human beings may no longer have inner lives—and it will all be the fault of BT customer services
June 21, 2010
Lily Allen's tweets lit a fire under BT
Not long ago, someone who uses BT in their online business described the company on his Facebook page as “a bunch of unaccountable, business-shafting, useless bastards.” I don’t know what it had done to deserve that, but I daresay the description truthfully conveyed his degree of satisfaction. A few hours later, he got a chirpy call out of the blue from a BT customer service person, asking what his beef with the company was and how they could help. Rather than be pleased, this Mr X found this contact unsettling. “I have since changed my privacy settings so only my friends can access my page,” he said. “What happened was quite Big Brother-ish and sinister.” His experience is becoming more commonplace. BT is one of a number of companies—including easyJet and Carphone Warehouse—that use software called Debatescape to scan blogs and social networking sites for negative comments about them. A friend in the industry tells me that some companies do more than use software: “They’ll have teams of flesh-and-blood people in India looking through every mention of the brand and rating them according to the degree of negativity expressed.” The way the story was reported was, in the main, along the Big Brother lines suggested by Mr X. The companies were said to be “spying on their customers.” But, as BT points out, it’s only searching the public parts of the internet. The company boasts of having helped 30,000 customers with this system. So is this the bright new dawn we were promised: social networking sites handing power back to the people? Well, kinda. It does empower customers—but only to the extent that they are in a position to embarrass companies. BT was all over Lily Allen when she complained about it on Twitter, on which she has more than 2m followers. When she couldn’t get Thames Water to answer the phone, Twitter came to her rescue again. But you’re not addressing customer dissatisfaction there—you’re combating negative advertising. This isn’t customer services so much as brand management, and though you could argue the two overlap, there’s a clear distinction to be made. Those teams searching for damaging tweets could, after all, be redeployed to call centres to answer the sodding phone. The more visible you are—and the less private—the more power you have as a consumer. But if you don’t play the game, you are weaker than someone who does. And the social media that empower these customers are not neutral public spaces, but privately-owned, big-brand companies. Google, Twitter and Facebook aren’t helping you out of the goodness of their hearts. A digital media publicist tells me that one senior tech journalist refuses to deal with publicists except over Twitter—and any who have the presumption to email him are named and shamed to his followers. There is a decent case for the principled insistence that commercial interests should contact you only in a public arena; and a time-management case for insisting on a 140-character maximum. But for someone writing dispassionately about technology to make a single proprietary product his sole line of communication seems questionable. Yet these media are so pervasive these days that it’s easily forgotten that they are private interests. Remember when the BBC talked about “sticky-back plastic”? Imagine them trying to do that with Twitter (“a bird-themed microblogging site”?). The market is getting better and better at commodifying privacy—or, rather, pricing it up and buying it wholesale. A previous iteration was supermarket loyalty cards. The supermarket wanted quantitative marketing data, and it bought it from you with the promise of free goodies. But this is a step further: privacy is becoming a disadvantage; and the public spaces are in private ownership. I’m interested in what it means, in the long run, for our heads. The experience of our Mr X may be a small bellwether of a bigger shift in the culture. The habit of interiority, undergraduate textbooks tell us, really got going with Protestantism. Public devotion, a mediated relationship with God and all that jazz, got replaced with spiritual inwardness, diary-keeping, private prayer and so forth. (Crazy ol’ literary critic Harold Bloom went further, arguing that until Shakespeare had the bright idea, people didn’t have inner lives at all.) The argument, in any case, is that medieval people saw the world in a radically different way to the moderns. If that’s right, the basic psychic order established after the Reformation (or Shakespeare, if you prefer) has held for hundreds of years. But these days interiority is in retreat. It is being pushed back by a sort of market-driven counter-revolution. A century or two from now, the experiment could be over. Human beings may no longer have inner lives—and it will all be the fault of BT customer services.