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Review: Public Parts by Jeff Jarvis

In Public Parts, Jeff Jarvis counterbalances arguments about the sinister effects of erosion of privacy in the modern world. He argues that openness and sharing, on balance, improve the world. He coins the word 'publicness' to describe open sharing, and argues convincingly that 'publicness' is not the polar opposite of 'privacy'.

This is a book which stimulates thought. I particularly appreciated Jeff's elucidation of the argument that regulation should focus on the use of information that has been shared, rather than the sharing of information itself. I had never considered the concept in this way before, despite it being a common one. I am a doctor: people tell me all sorts of things in confidence because they have a clear understanding that to do so is the best way to allow me to understand their condition, and diagnose and treat them. Occasionally, much of what a patient discloses – which is often deeply private – turns out to be irrelevant. But the code of ethics, not to mention the law, around these interactions means that they can share without fear.

While the patient freely discloses the information, the way in which the information is used remains within their power. They are free to allow me to share it with colleagues if they believe that this might help them (referring them on), or equally free to restrict me from doing so. Even if something deeply embarrassing turns out to be irrelevant, the patient is left no worse off for having disclosed it – and the possibility of benefit was probably worth the disclosure.

This is a single example of the effect Jeff's book has on many of the concepts around privacy and 'publicness'. He helps the reader to assume a different viewpoint on issues. The viewpoint is often one grounded in experiences that the reader already has, or can conceive of, but which they have perhaps not understood from the viewpoint described. This is a powerful technique.

Public Parts also discusses the trickier aspects of online life. It discusses cases where people share things that they perhaps should not have, and where this lack of privacy has caused harm. But he makes a convincing point that we all need to become more 'media competent', and that making the debate about 'publicness' more mainstream will serve to educate and inform, as well as helping to craft social norms in a more considered way.

The style of writing in the book is certainly fast-paced, and I know that others have been critical of this. Few things irritate me more than incomplete, superficial arguments, and so I was a little reluctant to read this book on the basis of those reviews commenting on the fast-paced nature, which I thought would be indicative of superficiality. On the contrary, I found the book well-paced. It discusses issues concisely, not ad infinitum, which I found refreshing. It leaves the reader to do some of the work around thinking through the issues surrounding the arguments. The author does not lead the reader step-by-step through every possible permutation and combination of situations and ideas, as other authors are wont to do.

I particularly enjoyed the discussions around the historical aspects of privacy and 'publicness'. Consideration of these issues is, in my opinion, far too often framed as part of the discussion around modern technology. In reality, there is little that is new about the issues themselves, merely new situations in which they need to be applied. The discussion was illuminated by description of how these debates progressed around the new technologies of the past – from Gutenberg's printing press to Kodak's camera. Similarly, the interviews with leaders in social media (and similar fields) helped to give some real-world perspective on the theories being discussed.

It seems a shame to me that this book has received so little attention in the UK. I get the impression that it hasn't been particularly widely read, which is a shame given that its discussion is relevant to us all. It strikes me that it is a book that could catch on among the political classes, and become widely read via that route. At least, I hope it might.

This book packs an awful lot in to 250 or so pages. It's a genuinely enjoyable read that provides a large amount of food for thought. I highly recommend it.

Public Parts is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This 2,221st post was filed under: Book Reviews, .






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