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The truth is your friend

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Openness versus privacy in modern society
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I have a lot of friends that are nuts on privacy and they think it's terrible that we have all these technologies that keep track of our credit card charges and it's hard to be anonymous. And I have a lot of friends that are nuts on openness, about being open about everything and access to all information. And strangely enough, many of those are the same friends. In other words, they have these two contradictory absolute principles, that everything should be open and shared, but that their own data should be private and hidden. And I think neither of those principles is correct. I think that information flow is, if I look at it from a kind of cybernetic point of view, information flow is a tool, feedback is a tool. And we want to design a society that has the right kinds of feedback and doesn't have the wrong kinds of feedback, and in some cases that means keeping things private. Sometimes it means information more open. There's no absolute principle that openness is good or secrecy is good. But we have to think about each case as to whether we want a society in which this thing is a secret or that thing is a secret, or this thing is open. And so it's kind of a design problem. It's not a simple principle problem.

Certainly we've... the world has shifted with computers to being less private. I think much more commercially than government-wise. I mean, commercial capacity to invade your privacy is way higher than the government's capacity to do that. And their motivation is to... the government actually only cares about a very little bit of information about certain people, but the commerce cares about as much information as they can get about you. So Google wants to get all the information about you, much more than the government does. So I think this, you know, is going to be a negotiation of finding the right balance point, but if I could live in a world that it was impossible for anybody to keep any secret, there was no privacy; versus a world where anybody could keep anything they wanted secret, I think I'd choose to live in the open world. So I think I tend to lean toward openness. I think a lot of things that people are afraid of becoming public ultimately would probably be better for society if they were more public. I mean, take, for example, when I grew up, people were very, very secret about homosexuality. Homosexuals tended not to reveal their sexual preferences. And it was something that they felt it was very, very important to keep secret. But actually, now that we live in a world where people are more open about it, and you realise how many people are homosexual, in fact I think that's a better world. That is not a world in which people feel like they need to keep that a secret, because they actually understand the reality. And so in general, in these things, it's not that I think nothing could be kept a secret, but I tend to lean toward openness.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: privacy, openness, information, feedback, commerce, government, Google, homosexuality, society

Duration: 3 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017