MIDWAY: Who needs privacy?

The thinktank Demos this week launched UK Confidential, a collection of essays about privacy. It’s beyond huge, this issue — it spans every technological advance that’s ever happened, every element of government, every cultural trend: so many things make incursions into our individual privacies that I favour a “sod it, it’s over” approach, although if there’s one thing on which this collection is quite firm, it’s that fatalism doesn’t help.

One of the issues that really detained everyone, in a debate to mark the book’s publication, was that of alerting young people everywhere to the long-term impact of betraying one’s own privacy. How, then, do we teach the young to guard their privacy? How do we attach a sense of value to this abstract commodity that, while they are young, has no value? Pragmatically, you might say, this is straightforward — you tack a module on the citizenship curriculum, and if they post a picture of themselves mooning at a goat on Facebook after that then that’s their lookout.

The trouble with this is, first, there is something a bit laughable in any reigning generation trying to teach the one below it what the ramifications are of their relationship with technology. Second, adolescents don’t expose themselves on social-networking sites by

accident. Almost all teenage behaviour is about owning the neutral physical space around you. It’s important to make a distinction between fashionable things that young people happen

to like — Grand Theft Auto IV, for instance — and behaviours they engage in as a function of their youth and vigour.

Facebook and MySpace fall into the second category. So trying to inculcate discretion at a time when everybody is seeking exposure is like teaching abstinence at a time when all they want to do is have sex.

Fifteen years hence, people won’t need to be protected from their past excesses, because the very fact that this is a universal impulse will mean that tomorrow each will have as many skeletons in his closet as another. In fact, if you don’t have a YouTube video from when you were 16, dancing to Britney Spears’s Toxic, then it’ll be as much an impediment to your public

approval rating as being single is today.