Understanding Our “Always On” World

Almost all of us know what it means to be “always on” in our daily lives. The constant checking of work emails, our kids texting us throughout the day, tweeting while we watch TV, and seeing the world through the camera lens of our smartphones. Going a bit deeper, being always on also has meaning for businesses, governments, and advocacy organizations. Constant connection means more data, more ways to access people, and more opportunities for engagement.

Let’s face it — there are a lot of benefits to being always on, but there are also a lot of downsides. Calling the world digitally connected is an understatement. Despite a still very real digital divide, large swaths of the U.S. and the world are increasingly interconnected. This has considerable personal, professional, and sociological implications. Society as a whole is still grappling with the effect that “always being on” is having.

From my first day at CDT (and before!), I have been focused on figuring out the right balance between living a private life and living a connected life — for myself, for my family, and for each of us. I very much believe that inner peace and digital connectivity can coexist, and I don’t believe that embracing the benefits of technology means giving away our right to privacy. In fact, I’ve been rolling out a classic term from my law school days — curtilage — to help figure out the boundaries we should have in our digital lives.

I very much believe that inner peace and digital connectivity can coexist, and I don’t believe that embracing the benefits of technology means giving away our right to privacy.”

Curtilage is essentially the extension of the definition of “home.” It is the area around your home or the broader grounds of your home, and courts have used curtilage as the appropriate extension of the areas where we are protected from unlawful searches and seizures of property. You cannot search someone’s shed in the backyard just because they don’t live in it. Similarly, in the digital age, I don’t believe you should be able to search someone’s documents stored in the cloud just because they are no longer stored in a filing cabinet. It’s time to rethink the meaning of curtilage in the always on world.

Defining our new boundaries in the digital world is not an easy task, nor is it one for only one segment of society to tackle. Tech companies, governments, advocates, academics, lawyers, retailers, and citizens all need to be part of the conversation that leads to a revamped — and legally grounded — definition of what it means to control your digital self.

 Defining our new boundaries in the digital world is not an easy task, nor is it one for only one segment of society to tackle.”

One of CDT’s greatest attributes is our ability to bring diverse, and often divergent, constituencies together to find the best solutions to our toughest problems. Shaping the policies, laws, and norms that will enable us to be always on — while maintaining our rights to privacy and free expression — is one of the challenges that we know must be tackled. And we are going to do it. Over the coming months, CDT will host a series of dialogues around the theme of “Always On,” bringing together varied stakeholders and decision-makers. We’ll be fleshing out the concept of big data and creating a sense of curtilage for the digital self.

The first Always On session will take place on July 23, and will cover the broad ground necessary to frame future events. We are already planning discussions around health care, education, entrepreneurship, and the connected home. We plan to have reports from each discussion, and we will be forming action-oriented networks to dig even deeper into these issues. Be sure to reach out if you’d like to join us, and keep up with our blog to discover what we hope are compelling insights.

Being always on is changing us; CDT is going to work to make sure it is for the better.

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