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Towards a post privacy world — what the Ashley Madison hack could mean for cities

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Ashley Madison is a website that helps married people have affairs. 

Recently the website was hacked and over 33 million accounts were exposed. This included full names, email addresses, mailing addresses, and so on. Not surprisingly, this has gotten a lot of press. The site was/is marketed as being private and secure. And clearly that is not what it is right now.

But there are people in the tech community, such as venture capitalist Albert Wenger, who believe that is merely a glimpse into the future – a “post privacy future.” He even argues on his blog that we as a society should be more accepting of the leak and that the release of this data could lead to a “more measured view of affairs.” (There are many who argue that humans are not intended to be monogamous.)

For many, or probably most of you, I’m sure this position seems pretty radical. After all, this leak will likely destroy many marriages.

But Wenger’s position on privacy is a fascinating one and he’s written a lot on the topic. The tension he sees is one between individual privacy vs. collective intelligence. In this part of the world, our society values the former over the latter. But he believes that we are headed towards a world where almost everything, yes everything, will eventually become public. Again, radical position. But consider how much we publicly share about our personal lives today versus 10 or even 5 years ago.

What’s perhaps more relevant to the Architect This City audience though is what this could mean for many other industries beyond tech.

I often think about what a “post privacy future” could mean for city building. Imagine if every architect, real estate developer, engineer, and other participant made public all of their work. This would mean that all designs, financial models, sales data, and so on were made widely available to anyone who wanted to see them.

The thought probably scares many of you in the industry, but consider what it would mean for our collective intelligence. There’s a strong argument to be made that we would all be better off and that the process of building would become far more efficient. In fact, if truly everything were public, it could in theory eliminate most of the market’s concerns about overbuilding, a condo bubble, and all the other stuff that gets talked about.

The reason people speculate on these market factors is because we don’t have all the data. We don’t actually know what’s going to happen. We have no idea. I know I certainly can’t predict the real estate market.

So why aren’t we quickly becoming more public?

Wenger raises the game theory principle known as the prisoner’s dilemma:

“So one way to think about secrecy is that it leads to lots of prisoner’s dilemma style situations. Individuals (or companies) would be worse off if they were the only ones disclosing, but if everyone disclosed (or at least the majority), then everyone would be much better off. In the language of game theory, we are in a bad equilibrium.”

In other words, if only one real estate developer disclosed her project’s financial information to the public, then she would probably be worse off against her competitors. But if every developer in the city did it, then the market as a whole would be better off because everyone would then benefit from collective intelligence.

Using the example of infidelity, if one person is caught having an affair, then that person is more than likely worse off. But if over 33 million people are caught having an affair and it reinforces the statistic that between 30-60% of married people in the United States will have an affair at one point in their lives, then maybe it forces us as a society to rethink what marriage means today. And maybe that makes us all better off.

This is a pretty far out there argument, though the city building example is probably more palatable than the Ashley Madison one. Regardless, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. 

Are we heading towards a post privacy world?

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