We are in the middle of one of the most culturally creative periods in human history, and the first in which culture is being created not just by us people but by our creations.   I focus on the law of privacy because, of all areas of law, it is the area most intimately tied to the ways in which our selves are culturally constructed, to the relationship between the self we can and should be creatively constructing and the world we are creating.  And I love technology not because I “welcome our robot overlords,” but because it is the playing field on which the struggle to create a better self will be won or lost.

According to the algorithmic “daily newspaper” on privacy of which I am the “editor” (really just tweaking the selection criteria from time to time, as I do for the other three “newspapers” I “edit”), the hottest article on privacy for the last few days has been a piece in the Washington Post’s The Fix political column that makes fun of the purportedly incoherent privacy views of millennials. 

In a poll that defies all logic and reason based on previous polling, Gallup found that 44 percent of millennials trust that businesses are keeping their personal information private all or most of the time -- more than any other generation. Just 26 percent say they don't really trust said businesses -- the lowest among all generations...

The reasons that's so surprising?

  1. A March Pew poll found millennials are the least trusting generation. Only 19 percent said, "generally speaking, most people can be trusted."
  2. A 2013 Pew poll found 18-to-29-year-olds were the most likely age group to think it's more important for the federal government to not intrude on personal privacy than investigate possible terrorist threats and that the NSA's tracking of phone records of millions of Americans was unacceptable.

The one area where young people fell behind other generations was on whether they thought the government should be able to track everyone's e-mail and online activity to investigate terrorist threats, but still a majority agreed.

So little less than half of Gallup’s millennials “defied all logic and reason” by thinking that companies protect their personal information at least most of the time, because Pew’s millennials want the NSA constrained and think most people can’t be trusted, and of course there are data breaches.  The author has clearly fallen for the conflation between internet information exchange in the private sector and government surveillance which has dominated the discourse of privacy advocates and Europeans since Snowden, but  the picture the three polls paint may in fact be a completely coherent one, an accurate one and a hopeful one for the future and the Internet.  Yes, one NSA surveillance program determined by excellent independent reviews to have performed poorly in relation to its invasiveness should end; yes, we’re not dumb enough to think that most people can be trusted.  And yes, in this world of highly publicized data breaches, in which 6 statues and countless digital encomia have been erected to Ed Snowden around the world, and in which  the world’s most valuable companies have ALL moved toward stronger encryption of the data they hold, it is reasonable for millennials to expect that companies protect their personal information most of the time.

Because that expectation is not based on the rosy view of the trustworthiness of most people that may have clouded the judgments of their forbears, the expectation may be more of a contract the breach of which is likely to have real consequences. Based on other conversations I have had with millennials and my clients, and panel discussions I have seen, these millennials who trust companies will really hold companies accountable for failure to live up to that expectation, using the new tools that crowds have to impose accountability.  To the extent that I know, I would say that every company with which I am working is keenly aware of  the potential cost of such a breach of trust, and that knowledge drives their protection of personal information.

Millennials are working with technology to create culture in lots of other ways that defy your logic and reason, ways that may reinvent or recreate democracy and transform or underminecapitalism, as well as continuing to open the door to new approaches to authenticity, the self and privacy.   Because this creativity involves technology and collaboration and crowds, it is less likely be recorded as the product of towering geniuses like da Vinci.  Appropriately not; Da Vinci’s renaissance created or recreated the individual who became the foundation of the enlightenment philosophy that ultimately shaped our current notions of privacy.  Now that we are creating something else, I for one am glad that the people in the drivers’ seats of cultural creativity will be new generations of digital natives wary of government surveillance but open to digital collaboration, rather than current media pundits, politicians and privacy “experts.”  All of us older people interested in helping this new world have the burden and opportunity to offer ideas and approaches worthy of the trust that millennials and those who follow them may offer only carefully.  If we are good and lucky, they may include some of us among the old midwives who help them create the futures of the self and privacy.