Pulcinella revisited: rethinking privacy and security through “commedia dell’arte”

| February 23, 2015

What if everyone knew everything about everybody, but nobody talked about it (at least not in public)? Malcolm Crompton says the “commedia dell’arte” could have been onto something regarding privacy and security.

I have been thinking about all the different ways in which we could deal with the Panopticon society that we are constructing brick by brick through the combined efforts of the private sector and government.

There are all sorts of extremely valid reasons for railing against these developments. Indeed I have done and still do so myself. For a recent and potent expression of these concerns, see the TED talk by Glenn Greenwald in October 2014 on Why Privacy Matters.

But what to do about it? One answer is the bizarre Transparent Society approach taken by David Brin in 1998. It is a form of accountability by mutual 360 degree observation by everybody of each other and every institution.

Another is to try and see things differently and with a clear eye.

Which brings me to the blog I have just read called Pulchinella revisited by Tim Cole. It rather charmingly summarises the famous character of Pulcinella and his inability to keep a secret in the age old Italian “commedia dell’arte”. As stated in the blog:

While everyone knew everything about everybody, nobody talked about it (at least not in public). Instead, everyone acted as though they didn’t know where you are, who you are and what you are doing. This is the secret of peaceful life in a village; it is Pulchinella’s Secret.

This leads to “Four Laws of Secrecy in the Information Society” as proposed by Emilio Mordini which you will have to go to the blog to read.

But it is the actionable conclusion that interests me just as much. In Tim’s words:

if all secrets are Pulchinella’s Secrets, thinking that we can actually keep data from leaking is a fallacy. All IT can do is make sure we know who knows, so instead of docking things down, we should be more concerned about managing access rights. …

In any case, strong data protection and security are often illusory and in fact probably useless, he [Mordini] says. His conclusion? “Data are insecure by default”, he bluntly states – so don’t spend too much energy and resources protecting databases; instead devote your time and spend energy to increasing your control over your data by making them always traceable – and erasable!

I am not sure that this is the total solution, but it may well be part of it!