Anonymity in the Age of the Panopticon, Cont.

Previously here, here, and here. In this installment, two readers on how -- and whether -- life will be different when everything is on the "permanent record," all the time. First, someone who says that not much will actually change, as long as citizens/users challenge the tech companies that increasingly control users'  information:

Here's a vote for things will pretty much continue as before. Our utterances on the internet reach more people and last longer than a Hyde Park soapbox and so will certainly change some of our expectations of privacy. But the weight of what we say won't be reduced by ease of access or retrieval.

The discussion should be about who owns the personae we leave on the servers of our social media and email providers. Who owns our email archives and for what commercial purposes can Google Docs and Microsoft Live use our cloud documents? Search engines save our clicks and many online services save our preferences; to what extent should we allow these companies to use the information they collect? Should Amazon have the right to sell the information it collects on our purchases with it? We mostly allow these and other commercial opportunities our electronic age has opened. The debate over whether we should let Yahoos profit from our private information has never been robust.

And another reader arguing that the age of constant visibility can actually have its benefits:

I long ago learned that if it's on a computer it can become public. But I also think this is a good thing for the following reason. As email use became more prevalent, its ease of use encouraged a lot of sloppy writing. I can't tell you how many emails I would get discussing issues that it was obvious the sender did no proofing. My attitude was, if they can't take the time to make sure this message is coherent then why should I give it serious weight.

Proofing hopefully would take some of the steam out of barbs and rants that get stuck in a lot of heated emails. Even on lists and blog comments. I like your idea of not writing something that you couldn't say to someone's face. I've earned a reputation as someone who's honest and forthright both in person and in my writing. Part of the reason, at least on the physical side, is that no matter how hard I try not to, my demeanor betrays what I'm actually thinking. So I've found it's better to just say it in as straightforward and non personal a way as possible. This has carried over to the written side where I'm even less skilled as getting my words correctly understood.

More than a few times I've started an email throwing darts only to read it over and over to winnow out anything inappropriate or counterproductive. If the fear of disclosure makes people more attentive to what they're writing, I say that's a good thing. Now, if I could only spell better.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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