Lee Rainie Talks Wearables, Tech, and Privacy

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, is man who knows his data.

Rainie participated in an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit yesterday afternoon in which, as the name of the session denotes, anyone could ask him anything. And they did:

Tablets are quickly becoming ubiquitous in American households. What do you anticipate being the next technology to significantly revolutionize personal computing?

Rainie: Everybody is talking “wearables” now—especially for health and fitness contexts. We haven’t asked a question about that in our surveys because the hardware is so new and so few people have any kind of wearable. I bet by the end of this year or early next year we’ll try to get our first survey reading on that.

How can the US/world implement an “Internet of Things” and still maintain some level of personal privacy/security?

Rainie: We will be issuing a new report in mid-May about this very issue and how hundreds of experts who responded to our online query on this issue are very anxious about privacy in an era where data capture and data exhaust make data a “third skin” for people. These experts are not confident in the trends they see. You can get a flavor of that in the material we just released on predictions about the Internet in the year 2025.

I was curious on the backgrounds of the researchers that work at Pew (including yourself). How did they become research technology trends and what experiences best prepared them for the work they’re doing at Pew? What are typical skills found in the skill sets of the researchers?

Rainie: There is an interesting mix of skills here. Some folks—like me—have a background in journalism—with a bit of a wonky tilt. Others are PhD pollsters, statisticians, demographers, economists, and we’re just begun to get data scientists. In the next year or so we are going to figure out how to incorporate people with computer science, computational social science, other analytics backgrounds.

I even popped a question of my own:

Should people have any expectation of privacy on the Internet and on social media or is it more like this: If you take advantage of these tools, that’s your business, but data is data and if it’s out there someone is going to use it.

Rainie: We are in the midst of a sustained look at the present and future of privacy. People are becoming more nervous about their privacy, less confident they can control it, more anxious that current laws are not good enough. (See: Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online).

In social media, the nuances we see are fascinating, especially when it comes to teens: Teens, Social Media, and Privacy.

Please believe our data that, contrary to the belief of many, teens care about their privacy and are pretty active reputation managers.

We probably have lots more lawmaking, lots more legal strife, and lots more adjustment of norms as people try work through the tradeoffs you cite in your question. The story isn’t over yet, but we’ll probably come out in a different place on privacy in the next decade from where we are now.

Of course, Reddit users also posted the truly hard-hitting questions:

Would you rather fight a horse sized duck or 100 duck sized horses?

Rainie: I learned in my take-the-kids-and-stale-bread-to-the-duck-farm days that I’m not even a match for 100 duck-sized ducks. One giant duck or 100 micro-horses would inflict the same damage. I’d rather be ignored by my cat.

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