The Ashley Madison hack, common knowledge, and the explosion of coordinated actions.

Two events last week: I finished the book "rational rituals" by Michael Suk-Young Chwe, and the Ashley Madison data started circulating. A fortunate coincidence, because I think one is very informative with respect to the other. 

The end of privacy: government's secrets have been leaked multiple times (same for firms and various organizations). What is new about the Ashley Madison hack is that it exposed the secrets of millions of common people. In other words, your neighbor's secrets (and maybe yours as well) are now in the open. Far from being a one-off event, these types of leaks will become more and more common.

Knowledge and common knowledge. In my opinion, the end of privacy has less to do with knowledge, and more to do with common knowledge. Suppose you become suddenly aware that your neighbor is having an affair. Unless his/her spouse is someone you are very close to, you probably keep quiet and mind your own business (or, at least, I would). After all, we all know that affairs are hardly something rare. 

Things really do not change much if the entire neighborhood knows that your neighbor is a cheater, because most likely they would all behave like you. Hence, the knowledge of the affair is not particularly disruptive of the life of the neighborhood.

Now, imagine that someone runs through the street shouting loudly that your neighbor is a cheater. This is a disruptive fact because, at this point, everybody realizes that everybody else must know about the affair. They also realizes that everybody in the neighborhood know that they know about the affair, and so on. In other words, the affair becomes common knowledge in the neighborhood.

Common knowledge is required for coordinated actions. Why is moving from knowledge to common knowledge so disruptive? The book "rational rituals" by Michael Suk-Young Chwe is all about the following observation: knowledge is not enough in order to achieve coordination, what is required is common knowledge.

Here is an example. Suppose you live under an oppressive regime. You also suspect that other people in your country know that the regime is oppressive, but you are not fully sure. Would you go out and protest? Well, probably not because you risk being the only one there – nobody is sure that other people also know that the regime is bad and therefore nobody is willing to make the first step and start a protest. If instead there is some well publicized event – for example, images of police brutality bouncing all over Facebook and Twitter – the fact that the regime is oppressive is common knowledge. Everybody knows that everybody saw the images of brutality. Furthermore, everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody saw the images of brutality. All of the sudden, common knowledge of political oppression emerges, and coordinated actions against it become possible.

The above example follows closely the narrative of the Arab spring, but can be applied to many other contexts. For example, advertising can be seen as a tool to create common knowledge about products – especially those that require some coordinated adoption to be successful. The book has a tons of other examples.

The end of privacy and coordinated action. Going back to our unfaithful neighbor, what happens once the affair moves from knowledge to common knowledge? My speculation is that coordinated actions against your neighbor become all of the sudden possible. For example, a minority of your neighbors may have strong religious feelings and decide to camp in front of the cheater's door until he/she moves out. Note that this kind of coordinated actions against a common individual are not exactly new, see for example the protests against the dentist who shot Cecil the lion. My point is that the end of privacy will make coordinated actions against normal people more common.

Is this bad? Common knowledge and coordinated actions are not necessary bad. To start,  tons of people constantly release information publicly in the hope to generate common knowledge (or “make it go viral”). There are also cases in which the involuntary creation of common knowledge about politicians and governments was instrumental in bringing democracy to many countries. 

However, I note here that:

(1) those involved in the Ashley Madison hack did not want these secrets to become common knowledge – probably because they anticipated some negative consequences for them.

(2) In addition, we are talking here about normal people who can be productive members of society despite their secrets. Hence, I do not see here any “greater social good” coming from naming and shaming bus drivers, accountants, secretaries, …

On the other hand, maybe having someone protesting in front of your door because you eat meat, you have a pet parrot, you live in an open relationship, and what not will be the norm in the future, and nobody will care about it. Who knows.

p.s. just a clarification: clearly the Ashley Madison hack also generated knowledge -- for example a wife may discover that her husband is a cheater. However, the post is not about that. It is instead about the creation of common knowledge.