James Graham OBEBiography
Past Norms, Future Dangers and Acceptable Compromises: What Does Freedom, Security and Privacy Mean for the Future of Young People Online?

In a debate that can range from pessimism to tin-hatted paranoia, I actually begin from a place of optimism when it comes to young people and their awareness and articulacy surrounding data and internet privacy. 

Having spent time fretting about, talking to and attempting to represent on stage and screen people’s views and experiences of how modern technology impacts upon their privacy, I’m convinced that a lot of younger people are savvier and more attune to the dangers and compromises that come with new communication platforms than many older generations. And that, with their advocacy for privacy rights and mental health protections in particular, they will probably save us, rather than us saving them!

That doesn’t mean this awareness is universal, or all encompassing. Or that the problem will solve itself. Only that many net natives have at the very least an emotional awareness of the negatives of social media, for example, and are capable of making personal choices to mitigate their effect. 

What they might understandably lack, however, is a historic, political or cultural context for how quickly things are changing, what a Wild West period we’re in for during this sea change in communication, and how it might be improved or controlled.

In this, I think our job is to educate and empower them through data literacy as to past norms, future dangers, and what they should never consider as acceptable compromises from private institutions or the state.

How can we get people to care about their privacy?
I wrote a play called Privacy that premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2014 before moving to New York in 2016, starring Daniel Radcliffe. It was an interactive show where an audience could engage on their phones during the performance, thereby encouraging them to interrogate what data and information they give away about themselves without thinking, on smart phones, customer loyalty cards, Fitbit devices and more…

The overwhelming reaction in discussion with people, collaborators, interviewees, friends, family and audience members in advance of the show on the topic was always the same. “I don’t really care”, or “I’m fine with it” when it came to the exchange of their private data for something convenient, like a taxi showing up at your workplace or a package to your door. Cookies, third party access, government surveillance… “I’ve got nothing to hide”.

Few believed that they were important enough or interesting enough to either warrant surveillance by an institution (surveillance in most people’s minds being a Spy-type person, rather than algorithms or software) or be hacked by an outside party; or that there was even anything compromising about what they shared online.

The most effective way to get people to question this default response and to care more about their privacy was more often about addressing the emotional or human impacts of unrestricted data distribution, rather than political questions about the contract between citizen and state. How is this dama-ging my relationships, my opportunities, my sense of self?

For example, four years before the Cambridge Analytica stories broke, we worked with the designers of that same behavioural prediction algorithm in our play, using their software for the ‘game’ they built for our audiences. At the time, ‘Apply Magic Sauce’ was an interactive way to demonstrate that what we Like on Facebook can impact the profile the platform has on us; which it sells to third party advertisers (that range from shoe manufacturers to political parties). The software demonstrated with incredible effectiveness that it could identify aspects of your character, from religion to political views to sexuality, to an alarming degree. In some cases, it reached 96% accuracy rate, regardless of whether the content you Liked related to this category or not. Indeed, with over 100 Likes available from you, it claimed to know you better than your friends. Over 300, it began to know you better than you knew yourself…

The implication for personal privacy on our audience was stark. We asked them to imagine a 14-year-old child who may be, or grow up to be, gay. It isn’t just a breach of accepted privacy norms that Facebook knows you might be gay without you deciding to tell it. Worse, it isn’t even that Facebook might know that you’re gay before you’ve told anyone else, from family to friends. It’s that now, Facebook may know you’re gay before you know that you’re gay. That’s the new threshold of privacy violation that seemed to effectively shake audience members from their complacency. No, that doesn’t mean a Human Being in Silicon Valley is watching and judging you, but it does affect the content, contacts, filters and frame through which you see the world, and the world sees you.

We also discovered a basic lack of awareness, young and old, of the structures that built up the digital world. What actually happens when you share an intimate photo of yourself via a digital messaging app for example? In most people’s minds, they’re sending that photo from one device to another, and therefore it is, to all intents and purposes, ‘private’. From A to B, via no concerning C. But of course, as we know, this isn’t the case. That intimate photo of yourself passes through a physical network of pipes that pass different nations and jurisdictions to find itself sat on a physical server (which is owned by a private company with shareholders and investors to make profit and whose ownership can change, rather than exist for social good), where it will sit for an undetermined amount of time. A small academic point, perhaps, but it was an impactful thought experiment for our audience to accept that their ‘penis’ wasn’t just in the possession of an intimate contact, but now the property of a corporation.

The challenges for young people
I believe that awareness around the dangers young people face – from contact by predatory individuals to the potential for revenge porn to wreck a person’s life, or publishing something controversial on a social media platform that can damage future college admissions or job prospects – is far from universal, but is becoming more prevalent in the national consciousness.

The areas here I think we have not yet found an effective language for cover the more psychological and emotional compromises being made by the unrestricted free for all on data.

What will happen to a generation who does not feel able, capable or comfortable making mistakes? The net has indirectly led to a culture whereby every element of our identity, every expression of thought or sharing of an opinion is cultivated, crafted and edited for fear of Getting It Wrong, and having permanent consequences. This includes social communication: a generation of young people speak much less on the phone, because on the phone you are talking live, you are vulnerable, you may trip up, say the wrong thing, or accidentally say what you mean. But it is in these vulnerable moments that we show who we are, and learn about who we are. Anecdotally, therefore, we hear of college and university cultures now where students prefer to receive written feedback first, so they may curate the right response, rather than receiving feedback or criticism face to face. We hear of an anxiety culture when it comes to social or intimate reactions from a generation under intense pressure to craft the perfect image of themselves online, far removed from the natural human flaws and frailties we used to be able to embrace and enjoy because they left no lasting footprint.

We hear of a generation that suffers from an empathy deficit (though this is far from unique to young people), as defined by MIT Professor Sherry Turkle with whom we developed the show Privacy. Empathy comes from looking into the eyes of the person you are having an interaction with and bearing witness to the impact of what you say. And while the web has meant that marginalised groups might have desperately needed access to like-minded people far beyond the confines of their street or town (for example the LGBTQ+ community, or people with disabilities), an online model that is built on giving you what you want, rather than what you might need to see, means young people’s access to different views or experiences outside of those they grew up with may also be narrowing, based on the data profile that has been built up of themselves. Might that explain the diminishing tolerance for those with different political views when it comes to ‘campus culture’, and the polarising of entire populations around political extremes? How can we create an awareness and thereby encourage a culture among young people to shake free from this?

When the digital spaces that have replaced physical ones don’t naturally promote empathy, tolerance, a safe space for vulnerabilities or forgiveness, but do increase levels of anxiety, social pressure, unhappiness and impossible standards… when an online data model narrows, filters and restricts the frame through which users view the world rather than opening it up, encouraging diversity, and creating surprises… these are the psychological, emotional and even philosophical questions I would like to see feature in the debate and in the minds of young people as they go out into the digital world.

A world of genuine privacy for children and young people online would probably have the same feeling of security the offline world does (or should), where accepted norms around what we share with our employer, our neighbours, our political representatives, and our friends is something that has clear customs and accepted boundaries. It would have a fluidity to it, that means we can choose to open up and share more at a pace and in a manner that is controlled by us, and our growth into adulthood. It would wipe away minor youthful transgressions and silly statements as we hit 18 by law. And our data would be ours to offer up to the institutions, companies and people around us, but not merely as currency to spend within a transactional exchange to buy a book, hail a cab or order food. It would be seen as an opportunity to engage, connect, invite and learn: because it would be ours to share.

James Graham OBE is a British playwright and film and television writer whose work has been staged throughout the UK and internationally. His play, Privacy, explored how governments and corporations collect and use our personal information, and what that means for our security, our identity, and our future. James’ work closely relates to current political debate: he won his first Olivier Award for Labour of Love, a comedy about the Labour party, and had a sell-out, Olivier-award-nominated run for This House, which explored life in the House of Commons. His film, Coalition, won plaudits for its retelling of the 2010 general election and formation of the coalition government, while his most recent film Brexit: The Uncivil War, garnered huge public attention and critical acclaim.