The Value of Privacy, and interpreting meaning

May 23, 2006

A good, short, powerful essay by Bruce. “He did it again.” This passage to me is especially meaningful:

How many of us have paused during conversation in the past four-and-a-half years, suddenly aware that we might be eavesdropped on? Probably it was a phone conversation, although maybe it was an e-mail or instant-message exchange or a conversation in a public place. Maybe the topic was terrorism, or politics, or Islam. We stop suddenly, momentarily afraid that our words might be taken out of context, then we laugh at our paranoia and go on. But our demeanor has changed, and our words are subtly altered.

To me, it has also a wider meaning, relating to basic information theory – content and expression are not equal. What you say and what you mean can be two entirely different things, and this is the basic source for a lot of misunderstanding and conflict, both in business and interpersonal relations. (I guess also international relations and politics, but I have no experience there.) Thus it is always important to understand what you are trying to say, what entity are you representing (yourself, your company, an interest group), who is the audience and what are their expectations and ability to perceive the specific words and concepts you communicate.

When I was going through security checks at SFO recently, there was a banner saying something to the effect of “NO JOKES – if you make terrorist- or bomb-related jokes, you will be arrested and prosecuted”. Now airline security and its effectiveness is an entirely different subject, but I think the “no jokes at checkpoint” theme is justified – everyone, including the fellow passengers and staff, is already in a state of higher anxiety and there’s no need to further escalate the situation, even though some people might find it funny.