Dubai: Slave Society

Jan 112012

Last week, I ran across a fascinating article on the society and economy of Dubai: The dark side of Dubai by Johann Hari. (It’s from 2009, but no less interesting because of that.)

The whole shining metropolis — recently featured in MI4 — is built on a horrifying foundation of slave labor:

Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. “To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven. Then you get here and realise it is hell,” he says. Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in Sahinal’s village in Southern Bangladesh. He told the men of the village that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) just for working nine-to-five on construction projects. It was a place where they would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay an up-front fee of 220,000 takka (£2,300) for the work visa – a fee they’d pay off in the first six months, easy. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.

As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don’t like it, the company told him, go home. “But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket,” he said. “Well, then you’d better get to work,” they replied.

Sahinal was in a panic. His family back home – his son, daughter, wife and parents – were waiting for money, excited that their boy had finally made it. But he was going to have to work for more than two years just to pay for the cost of getting here – and all to earn less than he did in Bangladesh.

Then, at the air-conditioned luxury of the mall:

I approach a blonde 17-year-old Dutch girl wandering around in hotpants, oblivious to the swarms of men gaping at her. “I love it here!” she says. “The heat, the malls, the beach!” Does it ever bother you that it’s a slave society? She puts her head down, just as Sohinal did. “I try not to see,” she says. Even at 17, she has learned not to look, and not to ask; that, she senses, is a transgression too far.

That kind of evasion is bad enough. Even worse is the evasion required by the Westerners who actively participate in this slavery:

…one theme unites every expat I speak to: their joy at having staff to do the work that would clog their lives up Back Home. Everyone, it seems, has a maid. The maids used to be predominantly Filipino, but with the recession, Filipinos have been judged to be too expensive, so a nice Ethiopian servant girl is the latest fashionable accessory.

It is an open secret that once you hire a maid, you have absolute power over her. You take her passport – everyone does; you decide when to pay her, and when – if ever – she can take a break; and you decide who she talks to. She speaks no Arabic. She cannot escape.

In a Burger King, a Filipino girl tells me it is “terrifying” for her to wander the malls in Dubai because Filipino maids or nannies always sneak away from the family they are with and beg her for help. “They say – ‘Please, I am being held prisoner, they don’t let me call home, they make me work every waking hour seven days a week.’ At first I would say – my God, I will tell the consulate, where are you staying? But they never know their address, and the consulate isn’t interested. I avoid them now. I keep thinking about a woman who told me she hadn’t eaten any fruit in four years. They think I have power because I can walk around on my own, but I’m powerless.”

The only hostel for women in Dubai – a filthy private villa on the brink of being repossessed – is filled with escaped maids. Mela Matari, a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me what happened to her – and thousands like her. She was promised a paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future. “But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. I was exhausted and pleaded for a break, but they just shouted: ‘You came here to work, not sleep!’ Then one day I just couldn’t go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her fists and kicked me. My ear still hurts. They wouldn’t give me my wages: they said they’d pay me at the end of the two years. What could I do? I didn’t know anybody here. I was terrified.”

One day, after yet another beating, Mela ran out onto the streets, and asked – in broken English – how to find the Ethiopian consulate. After walking for two days, she found it, but they told her she had to get her passport back from Madam. “Well, how could I?” she asks. She has been in this hostel for six months. She has spoken to her daughter twice. “I lost my country, I lost my daughter, I lost everything,” she says.

As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double Decker. I asked a British woman called Hermione Frayling what the best thing about Dubai was. “Oh, the servant class!” she trilled. “You do nothing. They’ll do anything!”

The psychological contortions required to willingly relocate to a slave society, then actively participate in such slavery, is just mind-boggling. As one woman was quoted in the article, “All the people who couldn’t succeed in their own countries end up here, and suddenly they’re rich and promoted way above their abilities and bragging about how great they are. I’ve never met so many incompetent people in such senior positions anywhere in the world.” That mentality — delusional and incompetent yet ambitious — seems to be fertile ground for embracing the practice of slavery.

I’ve already quoted too much of the article, but so much else in it is deeply fascinating — and heartbreaking. So go read the whole article. You won’t be sorry to know what “exploitation of the workers” and “environmental destruction” really means.

Finally, my friend Kirez posted the following comment on Facebook, which I’m including here with his permission:

I recall reading this article when it was published. I witnessed many of these labor camps firsthand; it was a horrifying experience.

It’s not easy to see if you’re there simply as a tourist. But even when I wasn’t exploring where I wasn’t supposed to be, if I simply went into a grocery near one of these labor camps where the pakistanis and indians and burmese in large groups would go to buy their groceries, the racism (in these places even more than most others) was so palpable, it seemed a theatre spectacle: I would walk into a store, where gangs of pakistanis or indians were trudging along, and the (Indian) owners of the stores would come running, falling over themselves, bowing to me and calling me sir, and offering to help me with my shopping and finding me special products or deals… for no reason whatsoever except that I was white and had honored their store with my presence.

I first noticed the workers when I was acting as a tourist, and went out to the construction sites of the islands to look at the buildings (I saw a lot of really bad construction practices… not only safety issues, which were normal, but severely faulty lack of fortification and structural issues, like neglecting rebar through cinderblock walls, etc.) I saw buses full of pakistani workers coming to and from the work sites. I knew the city (Dubai) pretty well, but these workers didn’t live in the city; the buses went out of the city into the desert. At first I simply watched the buses coming and going and felt very sorry for the workers, because the heat was overbearing for us in an air conditioned luxury car… and I could see them slumped against windows, sleeping, in the burning sunshine. These images burned into my mind, and caused me to start noticing the shanty towns in the desert outside the city. Eventually I would visit several; later I would meet the workers as they worked on projects where I was working — later I even hired some workers to build pullup bars, squat racks, jump boxes and other equipment for me.

The cases of abuse were innumerable; it seemed to be the norm.

But I was overworked with my own projects… in a final, ultimately painful and frustrating insult to my powerlessness there, I learned that the mysterious traffic of men to the apartment underneath ours was explained by the slavery of a 9-year-old girl. They had kept her very effectively hidden from me for months, while I had watched men come to the apartment in singles or couples at all hours of the night, but I never saw them leave with bundles, never smelled anything, never saw weapons… I didn’t get it. I had only 72 hours left in the country when a pakistani tried to steal some of my exercise equipment (outside — this attempted theft was very unusual), and the woman who kept the girl, downstairs, came running out of her apartment to tell me, in arabic, that they were stealing my equipment… and the 9-year-old girl appeared in the door she had left open. I then got to watch local police detectives bumble the investigation, while I was completing my work, packing my household, selling my possessions and preparing to depart.


Reason for Hope

Oct 182011

If you ever think that American culture and politics is relentlessly sliding into the abyss, just consider the ginormous strides made by two groups over the past decade — gun enthusiasts and gays. Both are simply remarkable examples of good causes made real by successful activism.

I was surprised to be reminded — in this article about the life and death of early gay activist Frank Kameny — that President Clinton signed an executive order allowing gays to obtain security clearances… in 1995. That’s only 16 years ago. That seems like the Dark Ages! In 2021, I bet I’ll be saying, “Wow, I just can’t believe that gays and lesbians were only permitted to openly serve in the military for the first time ten years ago.” Hopefully that will seem like a barbaric distant past too.

As for gun rights, just check out the spread of shall-issue concealed carry laws across American states from 1986 to the present in this animated map. Blood is running in the streets, and every city is like the Wild West now… oh wait, maybe not. (Surprise, surprise!)

Change for the better is possible… if enough people doggedly and openly pursue it.

Blogging in Pursuit of Values

Jun 212011

[Note: I wrote this post in late April, and then I just plain forgot to post it. Although some of the news items are a bit dated, it's still relevant. I've already begun to change my focus in blogging, as outlined at the end. However, I have further changes to make over the next few months, and hopefully you'll enjoy the results!]

For some months now, I’ve been unenthused about blogging, and I’ve not been able to pin down quite why. Partly, that’s due to the demands of other projects. Partly, it’s due to the hypothyroidism-induced carpal tunnel pain I experience whenever I work at my computer. But I knew that it was something more was amiss too.

This week, I took a look at some of the items that I had in my “blog about this” queue. And then I realized the nature of my malaise… and what I should do to fix it. Here’s some of the items I saw in my queue. Can you spot the problem?

Exhibit A: Obama imperils free speech according to this report on a leaked draft of an executive order:

Pres. Obama wanted a campaign finance bill that would take the teeth out of the Citizens United ruling before the 2010 election. Congressional Democrats wrote such a bill, and then watched it slip into a coma. But that wasn’t the end of it. According to a leaked White House memo, Obama plans to create new campaign finance rules via fiat by signing an executive order.

As the Washington Examiner reported yesterday, the EO “would require all companies that sign contracts with the federal government to report on the personal political activities of their officers and directors.”

And by “political activities,” Obama means: “all contributions or expenditures to or on behalf of federal candidates, parties or party committees made by the bidding entity, its directors or officers, or any affiliates within its control; and any contributions made to third party entities with the intention or reasonable expectation that parties would use those contributions to make independent expenditures or electioneering communications.”

All of that information must be disclosed, according to the leaked executive order, so that the government can “ensure that its contracting decisions are merit-based in order to deliver the best value for the taxpayer.” While that may sound like the order is intended to expose sweetheart deals, it’ll also make it that much easier for federal agencies to deny contracts to firms that donated big bucks to Republican candidates.

Exhibit B: Archbishop of Canterbury wants to force the rich to volunteer their time serving the poor:

The rich and powerful should be required by law to spend some time every year helping the poor and needy, says the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rowan Williams said today a return to the medieval tradition when monarchs ritually washed the feet of the poor would serve to remind politicians and bankers what should be the purpose of their wealth and power.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s Thought For The Day slot, he said the Bible made clear it was the duty of the powerful to ensure ordinary people were ‘treasured and looked after’ – especially those without the resources to look after themselves.

Exhibit C: A local news video shows a woman more concerned with her food stamps than with the death of her three-year-old nephew in a house fire, after she left him home alone.

Exhibit D: A UK grandmother is visited by a “community recycling officer” because her weeds were too dirty:

After giving her garden a good spring clean with the help of her grandson, Kay McIntyre dutifully tossed the uprooted weeds into the green waste bin. But the 74-year-old was amazed when binmen refused to collect it – because they claimed the plants had too much mud stuck to their roots. When she complained, Mrs McIntyre did not receive an apology but was instead visited by a ‘community recycling officer’, who was sent to sift through her wheelie-bin and examine just how dirty its contents were.

Exhibit E: Caroline Glick details the inane horrors of Obama’s altruistic foreign policy:

If only in the interest of intellectual hygiene, it would be refreshing if the Obama administration would stop ascribing moral impetuses to its foreign policy.

Today US forces are engaged in a slowly escalating war on behalf of al Qaida-penetrated anti-regime forces in Libya. It is difficult to know the significance of al Qaida’s role in the opposition forces because to date, the self-proclaimed rebel government has only disclosed ten of its 31 members. Indeed, according to the New York Times, the NATO-backed opposition to dictator Muammar Gaddafi is so disorganized that it cannot even agree about who the commander of its forces is.
And yet, despite the fact that the Obama administration has no clear notion of who is leading the fight against Gaddafi or what they stand for, this week the White House informed Congress that it will begin directly funding the al-Qaida-linked rebels, starting with $25 million in non-lethal materiel.

Exhibit F: An advertisement from the World Wildlife Fund urges us to “respect the earth” based on her greater-than-9/11 destructive power:

Such tidbits of news — and I could easily gather dozens each day — reveal the dangerously degraded state of our culture. Some people might be inspired by such news to marshall their forces and fight the good fight. Not me. I’m completely de-motivated by them. Sure, I see some occasional bright spots in the stream of news — like the growing sales of Atlas Shrugged. However, mostly, my view is that reality, reason, egoism, and rights are besieged — from all sides, left and right. Based on current trends, I’m not optimistic.

To focus that cultural onslaught against everything that I hold dear, particularly by writing about it, is simply too disheartening for me. If I were actively involved in the political and cultural battles, like Paul is, I might feel differently. The the latest travesty would be a fresh opportunity to advocate the proper approach, hopefully with some ingenius twist that would inspire some fresh thinking. However, that’s not for me. Personally, I cannot say much other than “GAH! Look at this horror! It’s horrific all the way down to its philosophic roots!” in response to these evils. That’s not useful for my readers, I don’t think, and it’s certainly not good for my own soul.

Of course, the solution is not to pretend that “Objectivism Is Winning!” or “Free Markets Are Winning!” by ignoring the torrent of evils in favor of the occasional glimmer of good. That’s not objective. It would probably be even less motivating too!

In my view, our cultural and political future hinges on much more than political arguments. It’s not enough to make the moral case for capitalism. We need to sell reality, reason, and egoism to ordinary people as the only way to live, day in and day out. We need to show that living by proper principles makes every area of life so much better. We need to show that departure from those principles courts disaster, in a personal way. Without that foundation, statism will always win in politics. That’s part of why I’ve chosen to focus on practical philosophy: I want to show people what it means, in concrete terms, to live by these ideals. Although I’ve only just started, I’m pleased with what I’ve been able to achieve so far.

To achieve what I want, I need to focus more doggedly on practical philosophy in all of my various projects, including blogging for NoodleFood. I can’t allow myself to be distracted and demotivated by the current state of the culture. Sure, I’ll continue to work on some small activist projects in Colorado, and I’ll blog about them periodically. I’ll continue to highlight the fabulous work of the people battling for individual rights in politics, particularly when victorious. However, I want my own work to be consumed with the relentlessly personal and positive — in the sense of “hey you, here’s something you can do to make your life great!” That’s what excites me, and that’s what serves my purposes — and that’s what you’ll see more of from me on NoodleFood.

Compare and Contrast

Jan 142011

Law professor Amy Chua on Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior:

Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this is a little unclear, but it’s probably a combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children. (And it’s true that Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids.) Anyway, the understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.

Yup, that’s the parenting philosophy that she praises. And, surprise surprise, the method of inculcating that involves a kind of ongoing psychological warfare with the child, one that sometimes becomes a pitched physical battle. Her glowing description of how she brutalized her daughter into playing a difficult piano piece that seemed simply beyond the child’s capacity for two-handed coordination is just horrifying.

On the same day that I read that essay, I read a rather different kind of essay by Rose on finding ways to make math and reading fun for her young daughter. Rose is a homeschooling Objectivist mom who I had the pleasure of meeting, along with her daughters, while in Boise recently. Because I played a bit with the daughter in question, I can easily see just how awful attempting to demand that the child “just sit down and learn, dammit” would have been for them … or anyone nearby.

I’ve seen some excellent commentaries on Ms. Chua’s essay — particularly from the devastated adults who were parented by the method she extols. It’s heartbreaking to hear from people who struggle to find passion in work or life because their parents systematically destroyed any capacity to choose and pursue personally meaningful values.

Thankfully, Paul wasn’t raised by such parents. He would have rebelled in a major way… and knowing his stubborn streak, the results would not have been pretty.

The Greater Danger: Islamic or Christian Dictatorship?

Aug 312010

This video of Brigitte Gabriel discussing the barbarity of Islam has been making the rounds on blogs and social media recently:

(Note: This is a multi-part video series.)

Diana and I heard Brigitte Gabriel speak at the same LPR 2009 conference that Yaron Brook spoke at. She is a staunch Christian who took an uncompromising stand against the Islamic threat to America. She told some heart-rending stories of life as a Christian under Islamist rule in Lebanon. She made a compelling case that the Islamists want destroy America. And she had the mostly-conservative crowd eating out of her hand.

And she’s just one of many eloquent Christian conservatives out there on the lecture circuit making their case against the Islamic threat — and arguing that the only solution is for this country to recommit to Christian values.

For this reason, I regard her and her allies as a serious long-term danger to America, even though her criticisms of the barbarity of Islam are correct. She correctly identifies the current problem, but she also offers the wrong solution.

Let me explain why I regard the Christians as the greater long-term danger to America — even while I also agree that the Islamists are the greater immediate short-term threat to this country.

Based on my reading of American culture and sense of life, I personally don’t think this country can actually be conquered by the Islamists. Yes, the Islamists will try as hard as they can. And yes, they could do a tremendous amount of damage (with more 9/11-style attacks or worse). And yes, they could kill many Americans in the process. But they couldn’t actually take over and impose Sharia law on us.

There’s still a general “ornery streak” alive and well amongst many Americans that would reject any such an attempt to subjugate us to Sharia law. Many Americans would fight back by any means necessary — especially in the much-maligned “Red states” where that ornery streak runs deep and where the populace is well-armed.

(This is in contrast to Europe, where I think many of those countries could fall under Sharia law due to their internal weaknesses).

But I do think that if the Islamists successfully committed more major terrorist attacks on US soil, it would arouse a backlash by decent Americans seeking some kind of forceful response. Conservatives like Brigitte Gabriel would exploit this and use pro-American rhetoric to rouse Americans against the Islamists. And this breed of conservatives might even implement a somewhat better foreign policy, at least for a while.

But they also would couple that with appeals to Christianity, sacrifice, faith, etc. — all in the name of being “pro-America”. Those are the sorts of appeals that the neocons, John McCain, and other bad conservatives have been making for many years — and which would strike a renewed chord in an America shaken up by a string of deadly attacks at home and abroad. Americans would likely reject our current policy of appeasement (correctly seeing it as having weakened this country), but would instead embrace an even worse nationalism. And without a firm commitment to individual rights, any new conservative nationalist government would very likely impose a variety of “emergency” measures that might be superficially reasonable (and might even be appropriate in short-term wartime settings), but would somehow never be repealed.

If dictatorship ever comes to America, it won’t be an Islamist one. Instead, it will more likely be a Christian one, but one which would arise as a direct result of our current weak approach to the real and immediate Islamist threats. Furthermore, such a Christianist regime could gain traction here in a way that an Islamist regime never could because the Christianist regime would have a superficially “pro-American” veneer.

Tellingly, polls taken in the past few years show the following:

Given these facts, I think a Christian dictatorship could appeal to many Americans in a time of crisis, especially if it came to power on a platform of fighting back against the Islamists — and if it were viewed as the only moral alternative to the policies of appeasement and secularism that allowed such attacks to happen in the first place.

Hence, it’s critical to both oppose the immediate and serious Islamist danger, but also be alert to the Christian totalitarian threat.

Back in 1980, many Americans (correctly) recognized the USSR as a threat, but also thought that we could use the Islamist mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan as allies against the communists. Of course today the USSR is no more, but the Islamists are now a real danger to us in a way that few (myself included) anticipated 30 years ago.

But as more conservatives start speaking out against Islam, I want to highlight the importance of closely examining what they stand for in addition to what they are against.

And on a positive note, I also wanted to highlight the importance of offering Americans an alternative principled self-interested approach to foreign policy that doesn’t rely on appeals to faith, altruism, and sacrifice. Fortunately, we have such an approach to offer. Let’s hope our message reaches enough Americans before it’s too late.

Catholic Theocracy

Aug 272010

At first, I thought this video — which calls for restricting the vote to faithful Catholics and installing a Catholic monarch — must be satire. However, Real Catholic TV is genuine. Watch it for yourself… and be amazed.

Notably, Real Catholic TV posted a non-clarifying clarification here.

Quite often, I’ve heard from my fellow atheists that talk of theocracy in America is absurd. Is it? I think not, and here’s why:

  • Much grassroots political activism is driven by religious dogma today, as we’ve seen up close and personal in Colorado. For example, every group pushing for Colorado’s “personhood” amendment is deeply religious: Colorado Right to Life “commits to never compromise on God’s law, ‘Do not murder.’” Personhood USA seeks to “honor the Lord Jesus Christ with our lives and actions,” and they do so by acting as “missionaries to preborn children.”
  • Fundamentalist Christians and their mouthpieces like the American Family Association claim that America was founded as a Christian nation and that the Bible is the foundation for our laws. They do that, even though the Constitution is a thoroughly secular document, even though the 1797 Treaty with Tropoli denied that the US was a Christian nation, and so on. Their strategy of evasion seems to be effective. A 2007 USA Today article reports that “55% [of Americans] believe erroneously that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation.” (75% of evangelicals and Republicans thought so.)
  • A slew of well-funded and deeply-motivated Christian groups actively seek to reform America’s laws in keeping with the will of God. So the basic mission of Concerned Women for America, for example, is to “bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy.”

So should we dismiss a call for Catholic theocracy as too looney to take seriously? I think not. For too many Christians, the only problem with it is that the culture must be forced to be thoroughly Christian too… oh, and they would vastly prefer their sect to be in power. That’s hardly comforting.

Contact Juggling

Aug 262010

Cool video featuring a Japanese glass ball contact juggler:

Here are more videos of the performer, Okotanpe, at his official website.

(Via Howard Roerig.)

Apr 272010

One of my favorite television miniseries is the HBO production, “From The Earth To the Moon“. This series details the saga of the Apollo space program, with the goal (in President Kennedy’s words) of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”.

Although I’m not a supporter of government-funded science for the same reasons Ayn Rand laid out in her essay “Apollo 11“, like Rand I still marvel at this tremendous achievement which was a triumph of man’s reason and courage.

Of the various episodes in the series my favorite is probably episode 5, “Spider“.

“Spider” depicted the development of the Lunar Module (LEM) by Grumman Aircraft, led by engineer Tom Kelly. Kelly and his team solved engineering challenge after challenge through a combination of reason, ingenuity, creativity, intellectual integrity, and above all an utmost respect for the facts of reality. The episode is upbeat and nicely captures the joy of engineering.

The whole episode is superb and worth watching. But I was especially glad to find this short excerpt of the final 5 minutes on YouTube:

Kelly’s musings about how each LEM has a “soul”, consisting of the souls of all the men who built her, designed her, and dreamed about her was very reminiscent of Dagny Taggart’s musings in Atlas Shrugged during the first run of the John Galt Line when she thought that the motors running her engines were alive — operated by remote control by the souls and minds of the thinking men who designed them.

This excerpt also contains one of my favorite short pieces of television music, the “Eagle” theme by composer Mason Daring.

Daring’s piece captures a uplifting combination of hope, yearning, solemnity, and pride in wanting to meet great challenges and overcome them.

The musical theme to the series (at the beginning and end of each episode) by Michael Kamen is also very nice:

(The video track just above is from a different television show, but the audio track is from the HBO series.)

I’ve always thought of these as wonderful musical concretizations of the optimistic American sense of life that was so widespread and normal just a few years ago.

So if you find yourself getting depressed over current events, just remember that many Americans still retain that marvelous implicit sense that life is good, happiness is desirable and attainable, and great achievements are possible to men. And as long as we still have that, this country still has a chance.

Ayn Rand Predicts Reality Television

Apr 052010

In 3FROG, we’re currently reading Ayn Rand’s anthology on aesthetics, The Romantic Manifesto. In our last discussion, I was particularly struck by this passage from “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age,” published in 1962:

If you wonder what is the ultimate destination toward which modern philosophy and modern art are leading you, you may observe its advance symptoms all around us. Observe that literature is returning to the art form of the pre-industrial ages, to the chronicle–that fictionalized biographies of “real” people, of politicians, baseball-players or Chicago gangsters, are given preference over works of imaginative fiction, in the theater, in the movies, in television–and that a favored literary form is the documentary. Observe that in painting, sculpture and music the current vogue, fashion and inspirational model is the primitive art of the jungle.

Would Ayn Rand have been surprised by the rise of “reality television,” starting with The Real World in 1992 and Survivor in 2000? No way! As the quote shows, she predicted that 30 years before.

Pushing the Boundaries of Personal Privacy

Mar 172010

Declan McCullagh recently wrote a fairly interesting article on why no one cares about privacy anymore. He writes:

My hunch is that Google Buzz will continue to grow because, after nearly a decade of social-networking experiences (its great-granddaddy, Friendster, started in early 2002), Internet users have grown accustomed to informational exhibitionism. The default setting for a Buzz message is public, and Buzz-ers using mobile phones are prompted to disclose their locations.

Norms are changing, with confidentiality giving way to openness. Participating in YouTube, Loopt, FriendFeed, Flickr, and other elements of modern digital society means giving up some privacy, yet millions of people are willing to make that trade-off every day. Of people with an online profile, nearly 40 percent have disabled privacy settings so anyone may view it, according to a Pew Internet survey released a year ago. The percentage is probably higher today.

Then he discusses some of the benefits of more sharing online:

“As a social good,” says Richard Posner, the federal judge and iconoclastic conservative, “I think privacy is greatly overrated because privacy basically means concealment. People conceal things in order to fool other people about them. They want to appear healthier than they are, smarter, more honest and so forth.” That isn’t a defense of snooping as much as a warning of the flip side of privacy–concealing facts that are discreditable, including those that other people have a legitimate reason for knowing.

The truth about privacy is counter-intuitive: less of it can lead to a more virtuous society. Markets function more efficiently when it’s cheap to identify and deliver the right product to the right person at the right time. Behavioral targeting allows you to see relevant, interesting Web ads instead of irrelevant, annoying ones. The ability to identify customers unlikely to pay their bills lets stores offer better deals to those people who will.

Anyone who’s spent a moment reading comments on blogs or news articles knows that encouraging participants to keep their identities private generates vitriol or worse. Thoughtful discussions tend to arise when identities are public. Without that, as Adam Smith wrote about an anonymous man in a large city in The Wealth of Nations, he is likely to “abandon himself to every low profligacy and vice.”

I think that’s right, in general. (Obviously, some people can and do behave well whether anonymous or not.)

Personally, I’ve always been fairly open with the world about how I live my life. I don’t have anything shameful to hide, not even when I make serious mistakes. More positively, I can filter people by being more open about myself. I’ve got strong values and a strong personality. People can see that in my doings online. Those who like it will be drawn to me, and those who don’t will be repulsed. That’s good!

Plus, when people are open about their values and interests online, they need not awkwardly grope for some common interests to discuss when they meet for the first time in person. Instead, they’re meeting a person they already know. (Sometimes people know tons about me but I know nothing about them. That can be strange, although even that’s gotten easier over time. I’m not entirely sure why.)

As part of my online openness strategy, I refuse to use pseudonyms, handles, or otherwise conceal my identity online: I’m always completely myself. Diana Hsieh is the only person that I ever want to be. (I love being me!) Notably, I don’t think it’s wrong to use a pseudonym: a person might want to separate his work life from his other pursuits, for example. Yet I think that a person should use just one pseudonym in all relevant forums, and that pseudonym should be an open secret among his friends. Otherwise, a person is likely concealing his identity to evade responsibility for what he’s doing and saying.

Personally, I’ve definitely noticed a shift in my own “privacy settings” in the past few months. I’ve abandoned any and all sense of my own personal privacy, except with regards to my sex life. Yes, that will remain private.

I wasn’t pushed into that change that by social media, although social media definitely helps me share personal stuff with greater ease. More than anything else, I think, my decision to blog on what I eat over the past two years, then to report on the nitty-gritty details of my hypothyroidism has affected me. Even answering some of the crazy questions on FormSpring has pushed my privacy boundaries. (Yes, I’m going to start posting the more substantial Q&As here on NoodleFood soon.)

I’m now committed — in principle, I’d say — to extreme openness about my life. That still feels a bit strange to me, but I like it.

What’s your online privacy strategy? (I’m definitely going to get a skewed sample in the comments!)

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