PICNIC 08 – Secrets and Lies

On: September 25, 2008
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Genevieve Bell: on Secrets and Lies

After the Clay Shirky speech there is no time for questions because it is time for Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist working for Intel (apology accepted), to talk about secrets and lies. She wants to provoke us and immediately does so by telling that lies are everywhere; in tv shows, in advertising, stories of most movies, in religions, and so forth. She mentions here catholicism, being raised a catholic, which distinguishes between sins of ommision and commision; it is sometimes permissible to tell a lie for instance when you can save a life. (Great ‘lie’ example is the one Shirky gave earlier about the wikipedia article on Galileo Galilei which is closed for modification because of the ongoing flame war about the role of the catholic church.)

To lie or not to lie
When is it permissable to tell a lie? And why do we lie? When you tell your wife she doesn’t have a fat bottom in that jeans, is that permissable? How do you answer a simple question like “how are you”? Most of the time you will answer these with lies like “fine”, or “I’m doing ok” just to avoid conversation (which makes sense if you’ve reached your Dunbar number that day).

We tell a lot of lies. According to Bell, an average person will lie about six to ten times per day, but sometimes even up to 200, when you’re pathological. Men tell more lies than woman, although they are less good at it. Men & woman tell lies for different reasons. Men lie about their cars, their jobs, about sizes, where woman lie about weight, age, and stuff they’ve purchased. All in all, most of the time we lie to become more popular, to increase our status.

Genevieve Bell tells us that lies and truth are not opposites: we need to understand lies as a part of reality, and not at the other end of the truth. Lies are often a form of self deception, but also a way of coping with the outside world. Children telling they’re seven when you know they’re three are just testing the boundaries of the possible. How far can they go? Students lying about grades are actually telling you what they’re aiming for, what they aspire, want to become.

Next to lies there are secrets. Bell grew up in an aboriginal community where knowledge is divided between man and woman. She tells how secrets are interwoven with aboriginal life, and that woman will not tell the men what they have been doing all day at home, much unlike our society.

Online Lying & Secrets
We’ve taken all of this lying and the secrecy online, even though we think that the online world is a space where the truth floats freely. It is a conflicted space where we’re operating between cultural practice and cultural ideal. That lying is bad is our ideal, but the practice shows that we lie all the time

Take Flickr for instance; Genevieve Bell forgot her password and can’t get in flickr anymore because she told a lie about here age to Yahoo. Online we lie about who we are, where we are, about our height, weight, and age, with whom we are, … about almost everything. And it seems that we’re enjoying it. Danah Boyd, who has done research on myspace, found out that there are a lot of people over the age of 100 hanging out there… With online dating men lie about their height, and woman always about their weight.

This keeping of information, simply not telling, is a form of privacy protection. The problem with this is that our technology (most of the time) is not able to tell a lie. Phones can be tracked and traced. In Korea there’s a service where you can track any mobile phone you want. Parents checking on children, wives on husbands, and so forth. Of course this development has given rise to counter-surveillace. Technology that creates stories that aren’t true. Alibi services, which create a story of you’re (fake) whereabouts with the photo’s to prove it.

Technology Design
So our intentions and that of devices do not always match. We use lies to protect certain kinds of information, as a privacy strategy, but this can, as was the case for Bell and Flickr, become a problem. The weird thing is that online we celebrate the secret and the lie. For instance in Twitter where we don’t show everyone who we really are. We create a story about us, of who we really want to be. Now what does this mean for technology design? Technologies are designed towards the ideal that lying is bad, but lying seems to be what we like, and frequently practice… This raises all kinds of interesting questions: What about e-government if we always lie online? What about about online tax papers? How to track people that lie to us? How do they impact social security, social media sites, social networking sites, secrecy? What does it mean if we replace our conversation about privacy and security, with a conversation about secrets and lies?

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