Abundance And Scarcity In Privacy

As you know, we talk an awful lot about understanding abundance and scarcity around here, and how that’s really important if you want to understand what the future holds for a variety of different businesses. Failing to understand abundance and scarcity is a recipe for disaster these days. And the more you look, the more you realize that technology is creating new abundances and new scarcities in all sorts of places. Tons of industries are either already experiencing this (entertainment, content, publishing, news, software, etc.) or are about to (energy, health care, finance, etc.). But it’s also showing up in other realms as well, and Jeff Jarvis has a smart post about how it’s impacting privacy. He summarizes it in a very catchy manner:

Once-abundant privacy is now scarce. Once-scarce publicness is now abundant.

The concept of “publicness” is one that’s been getting greater attention lately (Jarvis is writing a book on the subject, apparently), but it’s this recognition of the flipside of privacy. As Jarvis notes, it used to be really “scarce.” It was very difficult to have large parts of your life public. It only happened for a very small number of people, and involved a lot of gatekeepers. That’s no longer the case.

The economics of abundant publicness mean that the old gatekeepers — editors, agents, producers, publishers, broadcasters, the entire media industry — overnight lost their power. That’s why they’re so upset. That’s why they keep complaining about all these amateurs taking over their sacred turf — because they are. What they thought was valuable — their control — now had no value. They can’t sell their casting couches and presses on craigslist for nothin’. They are being beat by those who break up their control and hand it out for free (Google, craigslist, Facebook, YouTube, etc.).

Abundant publicness also creates new value. Google search is made up of that value. Twitter movie chatter predicting box-office success is that value. Annotations on maps, restaurant reviews, health trends, customer desires — and on and on — all find value in our publicness and so new companies are being built on that value. That is why it is in the interests of both companies and customers to be public and why privacy — when it does compete, when it discourages publicness — becomes a nuisance for them.

I don’t totally agree with this. I think he takes the argument slightly too far in the name of simplicity. That is, I still think that many of the jobs carried out by those old gatekeepers — editors, agents, producers, publishers, broadcasters, the entire media industry — actually do still have tremendous value. But a lot of how it works has changed. The problem is when they focus solely on the gatekeeping function as the value (which is Jarvis’ point — many really hung their hat solely on the gatekeeping function), then it’s difficult for them to adapt. Those who focused (and still do) on providing greater overall value beyond the gatekeeping still do have tremendous value. As proof that Jarvis believes that, just look at his post about that new book he’s working on where he talks up his “brilliant editor” at publishing giant HarperCollins. There’s value there, it’s just not in gatekeeping.

The other point in all this, which Jarvis mentions more as an aside, is that this is really just looking at the economics of free from a different angle. That is, the reason that such “publicness” is so abundant is because it’s so easy for people to spread their works (and share the works of others) for free. And that increases the value of other things that you might do.

Jarvis focuses on the “publicness” side of the equation, rather than the privacy part of it, but the idea that “once abundant privacy is now scarce,” is also fascinating to think about as well, and certainly fits with various themes that have been communicated over and over again — often as simply as Scott McNealy’s famous: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” I don’t think we’ve quite reached the stage of the David Brin-style world where radical, extreme transparency replaces privacy, but if you want to extrapolate out some interesting scenarios, it’s fun to at least pull the lever that far in thinking about what it would mean.

Instead, I actually think that it highlights the theme of the post we recently had about how everyone has something to hide. As privacy becomes more and more scarce, those things we have to hide actually become increasingly valuable as well. Being able to keep that privacy increases in value. And that is going to lead to some very interesting and controversial business models and situations over time.

It’s all a very interesting subject that I’m sure we’ll be talking about a lot around here over the next few years.

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