5: Is there any future in blackmail?

In his post The Interactive Blackmail Squad: NEW SERVICE!, Will McInnes suggests an upcoming business opportunity: "You give us a list of up to 25 up-and-coming people you think will be movers and shakers in the next 10 years… we immediately start collating as much of their digital footprint as possible." Once the targets become successful, the investors have access to a huge pool of blackmail material.

What happens to the indiscretions and errors documented on social media? In August 2010, Google's CEO Eric Schmidt, interviewed by the Wall Street Journal claimed "apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites."

Which seems like a lot of trouble to go to. When everyone has 'youthful hijinks', any one person's indiscretions will seem less interesting. Gossip is boring unless you know the people well and with a whole Internet of novelty you have to do something pretty extreme to stand out. The Claire Swires email of 2000 would seem boring today. Now you have to re-enact the Tauntaun scene from Empire Strikes Back using a dead horse while naked to stand out. 

At the recent launch of Sussex University's Centre for Creative and Critical Thought, Peter Boxall delivered a paper that quoted from JM Coeztee's novel Diary of a Bad Year:

"There are to be no more secrets, say the new theorists of surveillance, meaning something quite interesting: that the era in which secrets counted, in which secrets could exert their power over the lives of people (think of the role of secrets in Dickens, in Henry James) is over; nothing worth knowing cannot be uncovered in a matter of seconds, and without much effort; private life is, to all intents and purposes, a thing of the past."

The loss of private life sounds threatening but it will be replaced with new rights and new responsibilities. Much of the comment on privacy is based around the idea that the rights were have now are universal, throughout space and time. Yet these rights have always been changing – privacy is not a right that  people have claimed throughout history and many languages have no word for the concept. As important as privacy is, such rights will always be in negotiation. 

In the future, novels based on secrets may come to seem anachronistic, but new stories will come to fill the void. Our current problems with surveillance are unlikely to tip us into a distopian future but the resulting world will be very different.

UPDATE (18/8/12) An interesting post by Charlie Stross on similar issues, "The Internet is for Porn": Blackmail in 2033. Stross also points out how the Internet makes it easy "to construct social networks among people with minority interests", that people can now easily meet other like them, no matter how obscure their interests and passions. There are communities being built now that would have been very unlikely to form in the past.

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