For men: Would you shave with a straight razor without using a mirror?
For women: Would you put on make-up for a party without using a mirror?
The ability to see oneself can be quite valuable. A well-placed mirror can be a magnificent medium for self-examination at mission-critical moments. Bloody throats and lipsticked teeth are self-inflicted wounds with little appeal.
These questions -- and their presumed answers -- help explain why I so strongly feel that much of the sturm und drang surrounding the challenge of digital privacy obscures a profound opportunity. To be sure, I don't care for Big Brothers monitoring my email or auditing my expense accounts online. I loathe the idea that being a hyperactive Netizen often means revealing more about myself than I prefer. But there's a vital distinction between what we choose to conceal from others and what we choose to hide from ourselves.
I have come to the conclusion that, in fact, digital media have become a powerful "mirror medium" for me that gives me the power to see myself in ways that were either unimaginable or impractical barely five years ago. The ability to sort through my email by keyword(s) or frequency of correspondence has given me insights into my priorities that would take a master therapist weeks to have uncovered. Tools for sorting through my cell phone traffic yields comparable value. Examining the past 30, 60 or 90 days of my schedule on my Sharp Wizard tells me all too much about how well -- and how poorly -- I manage time. Unlike my old Filofax, my Wizard can be dynamically interrogated and its confessions are often filled with counter-intuitive surprises. They provoke me.
So does the chance to see how prose in my proposals and columns evolves in the last seventy-two hours before a hard deadline. What rhetorical tics and tricks need to be exorcised? What thought patterns need further consideration? What's the difference between how I express myself now and three years ago? Where's the repetition? The novelty? Am I working faster or slower? Am I more or less productive?
The answers to every single one of those questions is barely more than 45 seconds away -- depending, of course, upon my curiosity and mood. My digital arsenal of silicon&software have effectively fused into a wilderness of virtual mirrors. I see myself -- or some aspect of myself -- with every casual glance and each studied stare. The important question morphs from "Do I like what I see?" to "How might improve what I see the next time I take a look?" A new self-awareness evokes a new self-consciousness. My life is now reflected in my "mirroware."
For people into self improvement, "mirrorware" offers an unprecedented opportunity for self-knowledge. As the Greek philosopher Thales Suggested thousands of years ago, "Know thyself!" Increasingly, our inefficiencies and ineffectiveness are less a function of our ignorance than our choosing to be ignorant. The ongoing explosion of mirrorware technologies has made self-ignorance as much a choice as self-knowledge. What we choose not to know about ourselves is ultimately as revealing and important as what we choose to know.
Obviously, there's a difference between using a mirror to avoid cutting oneself with a razor, and strategically planning a new round of cosmetic surgery -- just as there's a difference between using mirrorware to monitor cliches and using it to bask in the egomaniacal glow of one's own perceived wit. No doubt, mirrorware will inbreed unhealthy broods of digital Narcissists as surely as it fosters cults and cultures of relentless self-improvement. Mirroware will inevitably become the "introspection infrastructures" for the individuals and institutions who believe self-knowledge is essential to innovation and insight. It will be just as fascinating to see who embraces mirrorware media as who emphatically reject them.
Yes, privacy matters. But I find the secrets one keeps from oneself to be more revealing and profound than the secrets we keep from others. The most personally important privacy issues in digital technologies over time will likely revolve around mirrorware rather than "who has access to what" on the Net. The idea that the Internet and all the technologies jacked and hacked into it may be more of a mirror into ourselves than a lens into others isn't just a trend; it's a destiny.
A co-director of the MIT Media Lab's eMarkets Initiative, Michael Schrage is author of "Serious Play" just published by the Harvard Business School Press.