The Growth of Privacy; Day 17 -Run!
FEBRUARY 20, 2020
Growing up I was scared of my uncle John; I really lived in fear of him.
Though in hindsight, I think he must actually have been terrified of me.
My uncle John was my father’s youngest brother. My father was the eldest son and they were a traditional farming family who had been on that land for generations. McCarthy’s, and male Florence McCarthys in particular, had been on that land for over 200 years up to my grandfather’s time, so continuation was a thing; it mattered. If primogeniture had run its course, my father would have taken over the farm, indeed that had always seemed the arc of his destiny growing up and, initially, he stayed at home dutifully to farm. Yet he realised it was not for him and he wanted to go to Dublin, to study and he ultimately became a lawyer. (On many levels I am very grateful to him that he did, as the counterfactual almost certainly would not have involved my coming into being.)
Though it may seem the ideal now in terms of upward mobility, it was not an immediately popular choice at home, as it left my grandfather with a short-term headache. If my father would not do it, who would?
Well, uncle John did.
And growing up he was the man in charge on the farm; the farmer. Unfortunately, this set him, and us, the children of his elder siblings who would come to “help” at the weekends, on courses upon which collision was inevitable.
Farms are ridiculously dangerous places. And children are infinitely curious and mischievous. Take me for instance, I am an inveterate fiddler. When it comes to a machine, if there are knobs I will turn them, if there are buttons I will press them. My name is Flor and I am a messer; always have been, always will be.
The flagship piece of kit on any farm is the tractor. And on this farm, it was no different. There was a golden rule: DO NOT GO ON THE TRACTOR.
The first thing we would seek to do when out of adult gaze was get up on the tractor. There were knobs, levers and buttons in abundance there. For some reason, the tractor key is emblazoned in my memory. I could not tell you the make or model of the tractor if you put a gun to my head, but I’d swear I could draw you a picture of that key if you asked me. I am also convinced in my memory, though this may be entirely false, that the key could not be removed from the tractor. In terms of safety, this now seems insane to me, but for some reason, without having done anything to check this, I believe that this was the case.
One day, we got loose on the farm, and happening upon the unattended tractor, seeing as no meddling adults were about to interfere, we decided that this was our moment. I sat in the driver’s seat. I recall the indicator levers vividly. The pedals were a source of fascination for me; there are so many pedals on a tractor. And the pedals were terribly far away at the time, though that design flaw may be been remedied since.
While I was sitting in the driver’s seat my brothers and cousins were generally milling and fooling about the rest of the vehicle. There was a whole cab to explore.
And then, of course, there is the outside of a tractor; especially the wheels. The rear wheels of a tractor are particularly fascinating from a child’s perspective as they have huge rubber threads, so big that you can actually grab onto and stand on them. They are, in fact, perfect things on which to climb.
And so it went that as I sat in the driver’s seat of the tractor, entirely unbeknownst to me, my cousin Eleanor had decided to start climbing up the rear wheel of the tractor.
As one does.
Did I mention the key?
The key was the most glorious thing on the whole tractor. It just sat there on the dashboard. Quite an unremarkable feature really, but it promised such power. One simple turn and that little key could bring this whole thing to life.
The one cardinal rule I had always been told to observe was: DO NOT TOUCH THE KEY
And so I turned the key.
The tractor roared to life.
And just as it did, uncle John rounded the corner.
To the sight of children, crawling all over his tractor. One particularly bold child in the driver’s seat and another extraordinarily vulnerable child stuck climbing halfway up the back wheel.
And then, at that moment, he heard the engine start, and saw smoke erupt from that tall slender chimney that peeked up over the cab of the tractor; the chimney with the little metal flap that flipped up to emit that initial burst of black exhaust fumes.
In that instant, the only thing that I recall was terror. The roar of the engine was immense. And of course, the noise of the engine did more than simply startle the wits out of me, it also told me that I was now attracting the attention of every goddam adult in the place.
And it just so happened that the fiercest and most scary of all of those adults had rounded the corner and was now staring at me open-mouthed in apoplexy.
I had really done it now; there was only one thing to do.
And behind me all I could see was John shaking his fist while shouting:
I ran, and where else, but to Grandad.
As I gaze back upon this scene now in my mind’s eye I have nothing but pity and compassion for that poor man. That he did not just drop dead from fright at that very moment is a testament to his constitution.
But fate smiled upon me that day and the tractor did not move. Eleanor is alive and well despite my best efforts and is as I write a chocolatier in Spain as it happens.
For John and I the main casualty was our relationship, which took a while to recover.
John worked incredibly hard all of his life on that farm, and he made a huge success of it. He was always extremely good with his hands and could make practically anything. In later years he discovered a particular talent for building and property renovation. He went into this with some gusto and had built, literally with his bare hands, quite a portfolio for himself by the time he died.
John was struck by colon cancer and died far too young in his fifties. While we had never become what you might call close, we had a good relationship as I matured. The last time I remember him was when he called with my father one afternoon to my house that I had just built at the time, this would have been in the early 2000s.
It was winter and I was outside planting bare-rooted trees. John loved planting trees as much as he loved building. I think he really appreciated the idea of creating long term value from such small beginnings.
When I used to talk to him about his property business; he would laugh and say it was the easiest money he ever made. He had worked so many hard ways to try to make it he just couldn’t believe how easy it seemed to manage and maintain the value of those assets long after the hard work of building them was done.
Though funnily, growing up John and I would never have spoken about money in this way. Of course, we were adults then, but even so, when we were growing up there was a scarcity mindset in our culture when it came to money. Money was scarce and hard to come by; whether that was true or not (and often it was often true), it was part of the culture and it was what we believed. My father would tell me that one of his father’s greatest fears was running out of money.
So I was fascinated to hear John speak so casually about the easiest money he very made when we came to sit down to chat about things all those years later.
Because the way we think about money is so strange. We think of it as scarce and finite. When of course money is probably the only thing that is infinitely replaceable.
We try to hoard and save money when we squander truly scarce and finite things, like our time, and our privacy.
When we created the internet, we had two choices, pay for everything, or get it for free.
We chose free because, well, who wouldn’t, free’s better than paying for anything right. Better to keep your money and use free if it’s available.
But when we chose free, what we didn’t realise is that this incentivised the creation of a new business model. One in which the most valuable assets were personal data and privacy, which were often inadvertently traded without really appreciating or understanding the implications.
The question we now face is how a model built on data acquired in this way can be made sustainable; do we fix how we hold the data or the model?
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