William Gibson on individual privacy, governmental secrecy and the future of history

In a thoughtful New York Times editorial, science fiction giant William Gibson mediates on the difference between the privacy that individuals have and deserve, the privacy that governments assert ("What does it mean, in an ostensible democracy, for the state to keep secrets from its citizens?"), and what this will mean for the historians of the future.

I've met people who argued that whistleblowing was the same thing as spying, because governments deserved to be private from their citizens in the same way that citizens deserve to be private from their governments. This, to me, is obviously radioactive bullshit.

I have ideas about history, more than I have about privacy, and it is here that my confusion deepens exponentially. I believe that our ability to create history, to transcend generations via our extraordinary prosthetic equivalents of memory, is the most remarkable thing about us. Unless we've forgotten something, lost it to history, we've yet to encounter another species capable of the same thing. Should the F.B.I. or other agencies be able to unlock the iPhones of terrorists? To be able to do so makes them able to unlock yours or mine. Should I be able to encrypt documents in such a way that the F.B.I. can't decrypt them? If I can, terrorists can as well. (Not that I necessarily accept terrorism as the ultimate fulcrum in such arguments, but it's become the one most often employed.)

In the short term, the span of a lifetime, many of us would argue for privacy, and therefore against transparency. But history, the long term, is transparency; it is the absence of secrets. So we are quite merciless, as historians, when it comes to the secrets of the past, the secrets of the dead. We come to know them with an intimacy impossible in their day. It would be unthinkable for us to turn away from their secrets, to allow the Iceman his privacy or to not scan beneath the bitumen to recover an Egyptian priestess's tattoos.

The Future of Privacy [William Gibson/New York Times]

(via The Gruqq)

(Image: Gagged by Privacy, Tom Murphy, CC-BY-SA)