Naked to the world, digitally speaking

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2012, 12:00am


The Hong Kong man who inadvertently triggered a cross-border culture war over a mainland girl eating on an MTR train has apparently apologised. Poor man, he could never have guessed that his reprimand of the girl, justified or not, would turn him into the most controversial Chinese person of the past month.

Thanks to smartphones with their cameras and YouTube, what started off as an unpleasant row between Hongkongers and mainland visitors became public theatre, viewable anywhere in the world. There is a lesson to be learned here, about how we need to behave in the age of mobile computing and electronic media.

The merging of the internet with consumer electronics has been a great convenience, but we are paying a high price in terms of privacy and personal autonomy. The world may have been brought to our fingertips, but we have also become naked to the world. And for people who have had their intimate bedroom moments exposed on the internet, their nakedness has, unfortunately, been more than a metaphor.

We are - at least potentially - being watched all the time. Our behaviour - online and off - has become a matter of digital records and may be recorded without our knowledge or consent. Any personal moments may become sources of embarrassment and, in more serious cases, legal evidence. As publicised by the 'privacy policies' - an Orwellian figure of speech if ever there was one - of internet giants like Google, our online activities can be monitored in minute detail by governments, corporations, even public relations companies.

George Orwell was only half-right. He was thinking of totalitarian government control of the media. But commercial control by media giants is even more insidious and pervasive. Personal data has become a tradeable commodity. Privacy is increasingly a luxury most of us cannot afford.