Public Parts: A book review

"Reading" books on my iPod is usually great. I can download them from audible, and while I'm tending to the daily monotony that comprises much of labwork (tissue culture, prepping protein samples, running back and forth between centrifuges), I can just pop in my earbuds and keep my brain engaged with something interesting. But never have I so regretted listening to rather than reading a book as I did with Public Parts by Jeff Jarvis. i-48cf39cc628ab9a553d058bbfa0b9483-6000093698_c19f0e8c2a-thumb-150x230-71926.jpgNot because he's a bad narrator - in fact he does better than many authors reading their own work (though he has the first audio typo I think I've ever heard... I don't think any of our interactions being "meditated by" corporations). Rather, I regretted listening because there's no way to dogear pages or highlight great lines. I tried briefly to write down the timestamp of some good bits, but based on the way I listen, I quickly realized that was untenable.

Normally, when I'm reading a book I plan to review for the blog, I like to read the book in print and take notes, but I didn't expect this book to be super relevant for people that want to read about science. I was wrong and I'll tell you why a bit later. But first, the book: The book opens with a definition.

Publicness:
1. The act or condition of sharing information, thoughts or actions.
2. Gathering people or gathering around people, ideas or needs. Making a public.
3. Opening a process, so as to make it collaborative.
4. An ethic of openness.

What follows is a detailed defense of, and advocacy for increased publicness in just about every area of modern life, from our own social circles, to business practices, to government. Jarvis describes a situation in which, every time a new service is launched to facilitate and encourage public sharing, from google street view to Foursquare and facebook, self-proclaimed "privacy advocates" decry a descent into an anarchy of openness. Jarvis proclaims himself a "publicness advocate," and a superficial analysis of the book would find him arguing always for more disclosure, more transparency, more sharing, more "publicness." In reality, it's quite a bit more nuanced.

One of my favorite bits of exposition was a discussion of Germany's opposition to google street view - the service that adds pictures of storefronts and houses along just about all the streets that google has mapped. Worried that pictures of their houses on the internet would violate their privacy, many Germans opted out, forcing google to cover large areas of Germany with blurred pixels. Yet at the same time, Germans are more than happy to hang out naked in co-ed saunas - something most Americans would freak out about. This just goes to show that norms about what should be private, what should be public, and how we should make choices about our own privacy and publicness are not self-evident.

Through numerous examples, Jarvis paints a picture of a world that, whether we like it or not, is trending towards increased publicness. Drawing parallels with the intellectual and cultural revolution brought about by Gutenberg's printing press, he argues that the internet will cause a seismic shift in the way people interact and share their lives. That much seems obvious (it's already done this), but Jarvis seems to believe that we're just at the tip of the iceberg. Rather than railing against this however, he celebrates it, and even proposes we take efforts to go further. He doesn't argue that publicness is always the right answer, but that we should think more deeply about what it makes sense to make public.

For instance, when Jarvis was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009, he blogged about it, and blogged about his treatment options, and about complications such as incontinence and an inability to get an erection after the surgery to remove his prostate. Some criticized this level of publicness about something that most might regard as a private matter, but it started a dialogue that brought together other people suffering from similar problems, and a collection of advice that made life easier for him, and hopefully for future sufferers. Jarvis doesn't advocate that you share every detail about every bit of minutiae from your daily life - but if you have information that could help other people, I think he's saying you should default to sharing unless you can think of a compelling reason not to. In fact, if there are things that you could share that might help others, he proposes that we might regard keeping that information private as a selfish act.

Another interesting interesting discussion is if and how to regulate information. Many privacy advocates want to limit what information is collected about you, but Jarvis thinks a better approach is to regulate how that information can be used. Should Jarvis have kept his health information private for fear that insurance companies would not cover him or because employers might not hire him? Perhaps we should instead forbid insurance companies or employers from discriminating on the basis of health. Does it make sense to prevent companies from collecting data about where you are? Apple was caught doing this for iPhone users and caused a huge controversy over privacy. But Jarvis thinks that this knee-jerk reaction was ill-considered. There are plenty of great services that we could benefit from that use data about our location - preventing companies from collecting that data will ultimately hold us back. Instead, Jarvis argues, we should have a conversation about how that data can be used, and ultimately we should have a choice.

Jarvis also profiles a number of people in the vanguard of publicness. Mark Zuckerberg of facebook was an obvious choice, but he also profiles people like John Rogers, founder of Local Motors - a car company that's using an open source model to design its vehicles. These people, among many others, are finding ways to make relationships with their publics, rather than a specific product, valuable. Jarvis argues that this is the future of business, and that companies based on a model of secrecy and witholding will ultimately be at a disadvantage.

There's a lot more, but I don't want to try to make Jeff Jarvis' argument - I probably wouldn't do a very good job, and it would take more time and a few re-readings to do it any kind of justice. I will say that I found the argument incredibly compelling, and I think that anyone that's concerned about privacy, or the future of the internet should probably read this book.

As to why this might matter to science interested readers: perhaps you've heard about the Research Works Act, a bill making it's way through congress that would rescind a current rule that requires any publicly funded research in the US to be freely distributed within a year of its publication. Publishers of scientific journals are strongly pushing this bill, essentially arguing that they deserve more revenue from the works they publish, despite the fact that they add almost no value to the papers themselves. Essentially, they are trying to role back rules that encourage publicness in science. To fully flush this issue out, I think will take another post, but for now, here's a couple of other perspectives. I don't fully agree with all of what's said (I'll explain why later), but these are a good place to start.