Monday, December 19, 2011

Privacy and those Darned Whippersnappers

Just finished flipping through Forbes “30-Under-30” feature ranking the top young media influencers and up-and-comers. As you might guess, the list was full of individuals who have achieved impossible success at such a tender age. Oh to be twenty-something again, and full of promise, energy, and optimism. After all, how could so many accomplish so much in so short a time? Surely these kids haven’t experienced enough of life and gained sufficient knowledge three decades to contribute much of any value, let alone earn the recognition of a publication like Forbes.

Yet, while such thoughts may assuage the fragile ego of a curmudgeon who has likely already passed the halfway mark on his chronological journey, history suggests that these thirty feted individuals are in the prime of their creative lives. Among history’s greatest inventors and innovators, most were hitting their stride by the time they were in their twenties – even if popular legend would have us believe otherwise.

We envision Alexander Graham Bell as a grandfatherly old man in a white beard clutching his new invention while calling for the assistance of Dr. Watson, but Mr. Bell was only 29 when he filed his patent for the telephone. Likewise Thomas Edison is recalled as an old crank – the Wizard of Menlo Park – riding herd over a lab full of assistants, but he was 22 when he filed for his first patent.

Why, then, do we ignore history and marginalize the contributions that can be made by young people in this age when digital literacy is so integral to functioning in modern society? Instead of embracing the valuable input young people can offer we devalue their experience and insight.

As Peter Hinssen so clearly shows us in his book, The New Normal, the digital world that today looks so different than the analog world I and my generation grew up in is second nature to those in their twenties and younger. It’s all they’ve known, and they don’t think twice about how they interact with technology. Adopting and adapting to a networked world in flux is the way it is, and they think differently about their relationship with technology. Given that, why should we expect that an approach to defining and existing in the digital realm should come from those whose outlook has mostly been influenced in another time?

When it comes to privacy and information security, I think we do ourselves and the public a disservice when we attempt to change behavior based on the way things used to be. We should instead take our cues from those who are shaping the digital world. Facebook is a great case in point: created by college students, it was likewise embraced at first by college students (initially by design, but again once the platform was opened up to the public). The malleable nature of Facebook’s use and collection of profile information was largely reflective of the comfort level that generation has with digital sharing. But once old codgers like me got on board, we decided things had to change, and use of information had to reflect the way we wanted it.

Never mind that social networking on Facebook is strictly voluntary, and putting aside that Facebook has proven to be fairly quick to respond to user complaints, digital do-gooders decided that they should be the ones who dictate how the company should operate.

The digital age is one where ideas and innovation move faster than ever before. As history has shown, those who are exerting the most influence on the shape and direction of that age are also trying to find the courage to ask their crush to the senior prom. Rather than treat them with disdain, we should ask them what they think. And we should have the good sense and humility to accept that we may be able to learn a thing or two from their experience.

Even if they are a bunch of whippersnappers.

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