Communication, Privacy, and Community in the New Normal

An article by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, The World After Coronavirus, describes general dynamics of crises and particularly the current crisis:

Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life.  That is the nature of emergencies.  They fast-forward historical processes.  Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours.  Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, because the risks of doing nothing are bigger.  Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.  What happens when everybody works from home and communicates only at a distance?  What happens when entire schools and universities go online?  In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiments.  But these aren’t normal times.

He counsels, “When choosing between alternatives, we should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of world we will inhabit once the storm passes.  Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive – but we will inhabit a different world.”

This post discusses communication, privacy, and community in the new normal.

Communication

Attorney-mediator Esther Pfaff recently wrote a post in the Kluwer Mediation Blog, Communication After Covid-19, in which she argues that the pandemic “will have long-term effects on our communication culture and the culture of conflict.”  She describes poor communication in disputes before the crisis and has noticed an improvement since the crisis:

Lately, I have participated in a number of telephone conferences and video chats with a very different vibe.  These calls were thoroughly organized, in full awareness of the challenge that bonding and working in a team via a screen represents.  The calls started with an introduction round, making sure everybody is fine and giving everybody a good understanding of who is actually on the call (in part because everybody is kind of excited about the new working situation, but still).  There was a clear agenda circulated before and rules of communication agreed on.  Many of these calls happened in a pleasant and productive atmosphere, we actually got a lot done.  Because it clearly was the only option.

. . .

Over time, my expectation would be that a much more sophisticated ethical and social code will develop around long-distance communication.  And the more it becomes established, the less likely long-distance communication will be the root cause for so many commercial conflicts.  On this long and bumpy road, I believe mediators have a worthwhile contribution to make.

Her forecast seems plausible.  Many lawyers and other dispute resolution practitioners seem to have adjusted quickly to the new communication environment, learning to use video platforms and other media.  These media offer many advantages and it seems likely that practitioners – and lay people – will continue to use them to a significant degree as part of their new normal after the crisis recedes.

Privacy

On the other hand, Prof. Harari describes threats to privacy exacerbated by the crisis facilitated by increasingly sophisticated technology.

In their battle against the coronavirus epidemic, several governments have already deployed the new surveillance tools.  The most notable case is China.  By closely monitoring people’s smartphones, making use of hundreds of millions of face-recognising cameras, and obliging people to check and report their body temperature and medical condition, the Chinese authorities can not only quickly identify suspected coronavirus carriers, but also track their movements and identify anyone they came into contact with.  A range of mobile apps warn citizens about their proximity to infected patients.

He spins a scary dystopian scenario in which governments require citizens to provide “under-the-skin” biometric data to protect the population from public health threats but which provide exponentially greater threats of government control than in the past.  He argues that this approach isn’t necessary or even the most effective way to handle problems:

Centralised monitoring and harsh punishments aren’t the only way to make people comply with beneficial guidelines.  When people are told the scientific facts, and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can do the right thing even without a Big Brother watching over their shoulders.  A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population. … But to achieve such a level of compliance and co-operation, you need trust.  People need to trust science, to trust public authorities, and to trust the media.  Over the past few years, irresponsible politicians have deliberately undermined trust in science, in public authorities and in the media.

In fact, democratic, not authoritarian, countries have most effective in counteracting the virus.  Moreover, some European countries are devising policies that protect people’s privacy while collecting data to monitor the virus.

The crisis has increased the risks of erosion of privacy even without surveillance for the virus.  With so little face-to-face interaction, almost all our communications are on electronic media including video, phone, email, texts, and social media.  Governments and especially private interests collect and use information about everyone’s electronic “fingerprints.”

Some of this is beneficial and makes it is easier to navigate the electronic world, but it also enables covert manipulation.  Using electronic profiles, Russia conducted a campaign of subversion during the 2016 election, and it seems likely that many state and non-state actors will undertake much more sophisticated social sabotage operations in the future — or “merely” schemes to profit off of data about individuals.  A New York Times editorial states, “Many Americans now rely on digital tools to work remotely and stay connected.  They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their privacy to use them.”

In the legal and dispute resolution worlds, we need to be especially careful about protecting confidentiality.  Hosts of video conversations can record the conversations and, even if the hosts block people from recording conversations through the video platforms, it is easy to use other devices to make recordings.  Mediators use written agreements not to record conversations and need to elicit confidence that everyone will comply with these agreements.  Just as many lawyers are required to include disclaimers about the insecurity of emails, professionals may need to provide similar disclaimers about other forms of electronic communication.

Cooperation

Prof. Harari argues that, “Both the epidemic itself and the resulting economic crisis are global problems. They can be solved effectively only by global co-operation. … In previous global crises – such as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2014 Ebola epidemic – the US assumed the role of global leader.  But the current US administration has abdicated the job of leader.  It has made it very clear that it cares about the greatness of America far more than about the future of humanity.”

He concludes: “Humanity needs to make a choice.  Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity?  If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future.  If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.”

Unfortunately, the outlook for global cooperation isn’t encouraging at the moment, at least as far as the US is concerned.  The current American administration is focused primarily on blaming everyone else rather than cooperating with states and other countries to solve problems.  Indeed, President Trump is actively instigating conflict rather than promoting cooperation.

On the other hand, the lack of American leadership has prompted  states and other countries to develop new alliances and “work around” the American federal government.

The political conflict related to the crisis takes place in the context of the American political campaign in which voters will have starkly different choices in November.  The election results surely will affect the level of conflict and cooperation in the future, though not necessarily in predictable ways.

For more analysis of potential developments in the “new normal,” see The Next New Normals – in General and The Next New Normal in Law, Dispute Resolution, and Legal Education.

4 thoughts on “Communication, Privacy, and Community in the New Normal”

  1. Regarding the privacy point, if I may play devil’s advocate: I have always found it interesting how concerned people are about privacy. For example, people are willing to pay to use a VPN to “protect their data.” While I can recognize the value of this approach for protecting, for example, valuable business data or credit card numbers, etc., from hackers and others who are up to no good, I have personally found myself in more of the “I don’t have anything to hide, so why pay money to hide it” camp. So, turning to something like the monitoring of biometric data–a practice which is part of a “scary dystopian scenario”–why is the thought of such a practice so scary? What if the government or a private group knowing your real-time biometrics could save lives? Why do we hold the privacy of such data in such high regard? Could Big Brother actually help us more with more information? What is the downside of someone we do not know knowing something about us as innocuous as our blood pressure? Just food for thought.

  2. I think this article addresses three of the most important topics of conversation for the world to address coming out of the pandemic. I think that communication will look very different, even after stay at home orders are lifted and restrictions are lifted. I know from experience in a mediation clinic, that virtual mediations will be much more prominent. They are possible to conduct fully online. The pandemic has forced many into a new age of technology and I do not think we will loose most of the momentum that has lead to all of these different ways to communicate.

    The one thing that can stop the advances in communications will be the privacy concerns. This article does a great job at pointing out the concerns that people have going forward. These concerns are very valid, but as David put in his comment above, it may be better to take a “what is there to hide” mentality. While it may be scary, it may be a necessary evil. This all leads to the final part, which is cooperation and how everyone will need to come together to successful defeat the pandemic. Without cooperation, we will be in a much worse state coming out of the pandemic and I think there may be a real opportunity to come together and advance coming out of the pandemic. The key component will be cooperation. Overall, these three topics covered in the article are very important to the success of the population coming out of the pandemic.

  3. I found the discussion on privacy to be particularly interesting; in order for people to work effectively during and after this crisis people need to be well informed on what is going on and to trust the sources that information comes from. However, when the crisis is a pandemic where the pertinent information stems from individual’s private medical information it seems that some invasion of privacy is inevitable. A breakdown in privacy is nothing new during a crisis, and, to be honest, I already thought that everyone’s electronic fingerprints were being collected. There are improvements that can be made in all three of these areas – communication, privacy, and cooperation – and until all people and leaders work together to resolve them, this crisis will likely continue.

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