In a recent Atlantic article, Alexis Madrigal quotes Ryan Calo, a researcher at Stanford, who argues that drones will be the technology that snaps Americans out of their privacy stupor and causes them to confront the erosion of their privacy rights.
Madrigal says that drones could perform this role becuase of their unsettling psychological profile. Calo writes, "These machines are disquieting. Virtually any robot can engender a certain amount of discomfort, let alone one associated in the mind of the average American with spy operations or targeted killing. If you will pardon the inevitable reference to 1984, George Orwell specifically describes small flying devices that roam neighborhoods and peer into windows."
I disagree that drones will play such a catalyzing role. The dynamics of our democracy as well as the history of the introduction of these technologies points to their eventual assimilation and acceptance.
First, I don't think drones are that unsettling. If they were flying around cities, would these small specks in the sky, invisible to most city dwellers, create a haunting feeling of being watched? Most likely they would drift into the psychological background, as do security cameras, police officers, etc.
Second, an epidemic of drone use probably won't lead to a political groundswell to rachet our privacy up to a higher level than before for the simple reason that only a few people are hurt by privacy violations. Someone may get caught by a drone tabloid photographer or a criminal might get caught due to a circling drone, but almost always, the reactions to such cases are to rationalize. Thoughts like "I would never be doing something like that," and "only people with something to hide have anything to fear from drones" would be natura. This sort of discourse dominates our public policy debate already because of its close relationship to the "tough on crime" attitude that dominates.
Third, over time, it seems that intrusive technologies often force us to limit our view of our own privacy rather than spurring us to limit technology. So far, it seems that young people who have grown up with the internet have very different views about privacy. They seem to have adjusted to the type of snooping that the internet inherently allows for and tolerate what adults might say are violations of privacy. Of course, a slew of studies show that young people do care immensely about privacy (even on the internet), but it's tricky because privacy is such a fluid concept.
What I mean is that the concept privacy is very hard to define and changes depending on what is considered essential to a person's individuality. I wonder if there is a way to say which era in history had more or less privacy than another. It seems more likely that privacy is what is called an essentially contested concept. It is never satisfied, but is always at the center of a social and poiltical debate as we move closer to it while at the same time changing its nature. We're always pursuing it but can never completely meet it.
Photo Credit: Rennett Stowe