Privacy vs utility

Two of the unlikeliest bedfellows imaginable dominated the chat around SXSW today, Edward Snowden and Nicolas Cage. I wonder what the six degrees line is between those two?

The simulcast with Snowden focused on the normal user and what steps they might take to ensure their online privacy remains intact, a task that is immensely difficult given that even the best encryption is hackable.

However he was eager to stress that encryption is still the ‘best defence against the dark arts’ out there. Interestingly, he drew no huge moral line between government and corporate data gathering, citing that the only difference is ‘one can deprive you of your rights, the other tries to sell you stuff’. The view was that big data or any data shouldn’t be taken without your permission.

Despite the overwhelming consensus in the room, it seems not everyone at SXSW shares the same view. In a panel debate about the top emerging tech trends of 2014, Gary Shapiro and Robert Scoble discussed some of the tech that has caught their eye, from the latest wearables (t-shirts with moving displays costs $4k each) to the tech around the corner in driverless cars, 3D printing, UltraHD, home robotics, drones and sensory tech to improve our health and wellbeing.

They were most excited about the leaps forward that would seamlessly integrate your mood and needs with an ever more immersive experience. Shapiro talked about the potential for technology to deliver experiences that work across all five senses, with ‘TV walls’ being only a matter of time. For Scoble it was about the data collected by ever more sophisticated sensors that was getting sharper and would help unlock greater utility across all categories imaginable.

Scoble’s view was that ‘the more utility we have’ from new technology, ‘the more prepared we are to give up privacy’. He suggested that while privacy was always a concern with new technology it had been proved time and again as the price we pay.

This stance made me wonder if the old value exchange of advertising for access to content is being slowly replaced by data gathering in exchange for immersive experiences.

Whether it’s using the i-beacons built into our new smartphones to unlock new connections to the audience in stadium gigs or suggestions made in home entertainment or the gym based on your mood, heart rate, pulse, motion and gesture, the sensory technology has the biggest potential to build what Scoble called ‘contextual systems’ that are useful and add value to people’s everyday lives.

Which side of the privacy – utility debate you fall on depends on how much you’re prepared to trade. The paradox here is that the same early adopters most likely to be outraged by the hacking of their personal privacy are the least likely to want to go without all the shiny new utility built into these contextual systems.

To see live photos of SXSW view PHD’s Pinterest page.

Simon Harwood, Planning Director for innovation & insight. PHD UK. Follow @sharwoodster @PHD_UK


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