Meet the anti-privacy activist who wants to turn his life into 'The Truman Show'
Most people fall into one of two camps when it comes to privacy.
First, you have privacy advocates, the people who believe that increased government surveillance and widespread corporate data collection have rapidly drained society of its privacy, to the detriment of us all. Then there are the people who have resign themselves to the loss of privacy—they simply don’t think there’s much anyone can do about it, so they stop caring.
Noah Dyer falls into a third camp—and he may be the only one in it. And that's what he wants to change.
An “anti-privacy activist,” Dyer sees the growing lack of privacy as not just inevitable, but a very, very good thing. And he wants all of us to embrace it—and to kick it into overdrive.
‟The way I see it is that we’re going to lose our privacy, but that’s going to be awesome,” Dyer exclaims. ‟The society that most quickly embraces not having any privacy is going to have the biggest evolutionary advantage. All of their citizens are going to be able to act in their own best interest based on totally accurate information.”
For Dyer, a professor of Gaming and Mobile App Technology at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Arizona, the desire to rid the world of privacy isn’t just theoretical. He’s launched a Kickstarter campaign in an attempt to raise $300,000 so he can live without privacy for a full year.
The elevator pitch: Dyer wants to serve as a guinea pig for a vision of radical transparency that would make voyeuristic reality TV shows like Big Brother look like small potatoes.
When Dyer says ‟live without privacy,” he really means it. He plans to hire a camera crew to follow him around 24 hours a day for a year. Everything in his life will be recorded and put online for the whole world to see. He’ll publish all of his emails, let people listen to his telephone conversations, expose his financial records, and indicate where he is at every second of every day. If someone wants to watch Dyer while he’s sitting on the toilet or having sex, they can do that too.
When he initially conceived of the project, Dyer considered simply starting a blog to share everything he did. Millions of people around the world post to social networks like Twitter and Facebook to detail the Proustian minutia of their everyday lives. Taking that to its logical extreme was something that Dyer could have accomplished with relative ease—at least, that’s what he thought.
Dyer soon realized that, in order to be as transparent as he thought was actually necessary, he would have to spend almost all of his time documenting his life rather than actually living it. Dyer decided the only way he could actually live a year without privacy was to hire a staff of videographers to spend all day videotaping and logging his every action—hence the need for the Kickstarter.
By turning every aspect of his life into an anti-privacy petri dish, Dyer wants to show people that there are advantages to willingly giving up privacy.
Some technologists—Silicon Valley author and blogger Robert Scoble being one of the most prominent—argue that most people give up degrees of privacy to gain some additional convenience. We gladly give credit card companies a record of our purchases in exchange for not having to carry around wads of cash, for example. We tell Facebook every detail of our personal lives in exchange for trending news and not actually having to remember our sister-in-law’s birthday.
The advantages Dyer sees to giving up privacy are much bigger than that—they are nothing short of an embrace of the future on our own terms. He explains:
"Basically, I think right now, at a societal level, we deny a lot of our humanity. We think that we have less sex than we want to have; we think we want to work harder than we do want to work. As opposed to predicting that society will become hyper-moral and hyper-rigid [if there’s no privacy], I think we’ll just relax. Instead of the more puritanical element of our society gaining control, I think we’d see the more laid-back and understanding element of our society coming out. We’d recognize that people make mistakes."
Right now, for example, privacy advocates say that people shouldn’t post pictures of themselves drinking alcohol on Facebook or else they’ll never get a job. As an Onion headline once declared, ‟Every Potential 2040 President Already Unelectable Due To Facebook.”
But once no one is qualified to be president, isn’t everyone qualified to president?
As Dyer sees it, the answer is a hearty yes. Society, he says, will simply adjust to be more accepting.
‟In a world without privacy, we’ll recognize that people drink and people like to have fun and those people aren’t bad people,” he says. ‟We’ll just accept people for who they are.”
As a divorced ex-Mormon who left the church after a mission trip in Costa Rica, Dyer’s desire to make the world a less uptight place is understandable—but that’s not his main motivation. His real goal is to change politics.
‟I actually think there’s a lot more reform to be done at the top rather than at the bottom,” he said. ‟The average Joe Citizen, they value their privacy, and maybe their feel guilty about things that they do like have extramarital affairs. But, at the top, in government and inside corporations, there are serious things go on that people aren’t aware of that are much more egregious.”
The key to preventing radical openness from turning into a dystopian Big Brother situation, Dyer says, it make sure the concept is applied universally. Eliminating privacy for millions of Americans without doing the same for the government would create a massive power imbalance. (The kind of imbalance, you could argue, that already exists.) If we could see what every member of Congress was doing every single day, they might act more ethically.
It is very easy to imagine a whole lot of situations where perfect, absolute transparency could be problematic. Sure, being able to monitor the National Security Agency’s online activity to the same degree as the agency is currently to monitor yours seems like a solid way put a check on its much-ballyhooed excesses—but wouldn’t it also make gathering intelligence on terrorists considerably more difficult?
Or, if the mention of terrorists spikes your bullshit meter, consider cases of domestic violence, when a woman is hiding from an abusive partner. If everyone knew where everyone else was at every moment, abusers would have a much easier time tracking down their targets.
Dyer, of course, says privacy is the problem, not the solution, to such dire scenarios.
‟An abuser requires privacy. In a world where an abuser doesn’t have privacy, neighbors [or police] are going to stand up to that,” Dyer says. ‟If I knew the guy downstairs was beating his wife … he’d need privacy in order to do that. In a world without privacy, we’d also know he’s searching for her information. If there was a restraining order, we’d know he was doing things that showed an intention to violate that restraining order. We could prevent abuse in the first place.”
Dyer’s ultimate goal is to offer himself up as a model, to show that radical transparency is both possible and preferable to all other alternatives. In order to do that, he admits that he’s going to have to disrupt not only his own life, but the lives of virtually everyone he interacts with over the course of a full year.
He said that his family is broadly supportive of the idea, as is his employer. Although, since he works at a university where a litany of student privacy rules are in effect, he’s going to have to attempt to make a good-faith effort to navigate those waters. And if it turns out that doesn’t work, he’s willing to leave the university, at least for a time, in order to focus on his passion project.
‟People that I have sex with, they are very concerned and undecided,” he said. ‟They’re hopeful that it doesn’t get funded, so they don’t have to make the decision.
“But if does get funded, I expect some pain. I’m an advocate of open relationships so I have sex with multiple people. Some of them are pretty concerned. Some of them have said, ‛I’m proud to have sex with you, I’ll totally have sex with you on tape.’ Others have said, ‛I’m not sure I can do it, we’ll probably be taking a break for a year.’”
In case your eyebrows are firmly raised, Dyer admits that he lives “unconventionally in certain ways.” And while he says his intention is not to “advocate” polyamory, “getting people to consider [it] is definitely a victory,” he says.
The main kink in this plan, Dyer admits, is that his experiment in eliminating privacy isn’t a perfect corollary for a world without it because he’d be the only one without any secrets. As a result, living entirely in public view is transgressive in a culture not set up to support it.
This is a problem that veteran journalist Julia Angwin ran up against when she attempted to take the opposite track and do everything possible to maximize her own personal privacy for her recent book Dragnet Nation.
As part of her investigation into modern America’s omnipresent corporate and governmental surveillance state, Angwin did everything she could to remove herself from the grid. She adopted fake identities and used burner cellphones. She deleted her social media profiles and personally contacted hundreds of data brokers in an effort to have them delete the information they had on her. The process seems, if nothing else, utterly exhausting.
‟I would say that I was at best 50 percent successful, and that’s probably an optimistic number,” Angwin told Salon. ‟But I felt like it was still a worthwhile exercise because what I learned was that some things were pretty easy to do and very rewarding and other things were almost impossible. So this gave me a better sense of the fact that I did have some control.”
Like Angwin, Dyer hopes going a year without privacy will be a learning experience.
‟If this gets funded, I’ll have a year and audience to continue evangelizing this idea. Granted, that’s based on the assumption that I still like it when I finish,” he says with a laugh. ‟If I do this and it turns out that I hate it and there are lots of problems with it, I’ll become the biggest privacy advocate in the world.
“I don't consider flip-flopping to be negative. When you get new information and it turns out that you were wrong, you should change your mind. I think that’s strength.”
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