Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
July 27th, 2013

Privacy and the Two Realities of the Shift Age

Now that PRISM has been revealed, there is and will be significant discussions about personal privacy and government monitoring of personal communications.  There are several levels or developing issues and trends that this very significant revelation triggers for all of us to think about.    Here and in future columns we will look at the major dynamics at play and take a look at what they suggest for the future.


It is the rare speech Q&A session that I am not asked about privacy and the future of privacy.  The fast answer is that there is no longer any privacy.  Privacy as our grandparents knew it is gone.  The definition of privacy is mutable, it is constantly being redefined through time.  What was considered privacy 100 years ago is practically non-existent now.  What was considered privacy even 10 years ago is no longer existent.

A century ago, when the landline telephone business was starting to penetrate the marketplace in America the most cited reason to not getting one was invasion of privacy.  Having a device from outside the home come into my home?  That is an invasion of my privacy as a citizen!  How quaint that sounds today.  That is the point: what our grand parents or great grand parents though was an invasion of privacy is entirely different that our view today.

Generally speaking we as consumers have always allowed convenience to trump almost everything else.  This is certainly true relative to our use of technology.  GPS on our phones means we can use all sorts of great apps, but it means that other people know exactly where we are and when we are there.  So we have often yielded privacy for personal convenience, which makes some of our complaints about privacy a bit hypocritical.  What is that old phrase about cake?

In 2006, before the iPhone and all the handheld computing that has followed it, I wrote a column titled  “Technology Advances, Privacy Declines”.  That is basically the bottom line on privacy in the Shift Age and the 21st century.  Smart phones, tablets, browsers, video surveillance cameras everywhere, ATM machines and all form of digital records and communications that we so embrace basically are eliminating privacy as it has been defined for centuries.

Two Realities of the Shift Age

One of the defining characteristics of the Shift Age is the fact that we all now have two realities that we have to manage, two realities that we live in: the physical reality and the screen reality.  For the last seven years I have been framing this concept as one of the ways we must look at our lives and what is going on around us.  It was not until the cell phone ubiquity of the last few years –currently 5.7 billion cell phone users and 7.1 billion humans- that the screen reality has become as “real” to us as our physical reality.  What happens in our screen realities can be as compelling as what happens in our physical reality.  We sit, walk, work, and unfortunately drive in a physical reality always connected to our screen reality.  We have all seen people walking down the street largely oblivious to their physical reality as they are absorbed in their screen reality.

The physical reality is based upon atoms and the screen reality is based upon digits.  That is why the screen reality is morphing much more quickly than the physical reality.   The cutting edge of human evolution is now on the screen reality.  What is happening there moves to the physical reality.

Now that we are years into the Shift Age and cell phone ubiquity and ever-faster internet connections, we are seeing how the screen reality is changing physical reality.  The collapse of Borders and the closings of numerous big box stores across America can, to some degree, be attributed to Amazon and other on-line retailers.  The business models, the language, the metaphors of the screen reality are affecting and changing the physical reality.  That will continue.


PRISM exists in and because of the screen reality.  PRISM takes advantage of our need for convenience, reliance on and obsession with this digital reality.  As technology increases privacy declines.  That is why those who want privacy and at least some independence from surveillance move  “off the grid”.  We will take a look at the larger issues of government and citizen privacy in a democracy in the next column, as they need to be aired and understood.  There are reasons to be irate, but not surprised.

If you fully utilize the dynamic efficiencies and convenience of your screen reality, if you choose to share your personal information on it you are leaving the world of privacy.

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In times of global uncertainty and disruption it takes a futurist to provide context and understanding.

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