Outbound and Down

In my last post, I focused on the question of how do we manage all the inbound messages of our always-on digital lives. Since that post there have been more articles published on this topic. Generally, they ask if we are witnessing a major change in the way the world works and make a guess at what a permanently connected future might look like. As expected, the primary conclusion of these articles is that the endless flow of information is ultimately harmful to our physical and mental well-being. Constant connectivity saps our creativity and productivity, our ability to focus and recharge. In studies of internet addicts, researchers have even found physical changes to the brain. From a Newsweek article “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” (such a link bait title…)

The brains of Internet addicts, it turns out, look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts. In a study published in January, Chinese researchers found “abnormal white matter”—essentially extra nerve cells built for speed—in the areas charged with attention, control, and executive function. A parallel study found similar changes in the brains of videogame addicts. And both studies come on the heels of other Chinese results that link Internet addiction to “structural abnormalities in gray matter,” namely shrinkage of 10 to 20 percent in the area of the brain responsible for processing of speech, memory, motor control, emotion, sensory, and other information. And worse, the shrinkage never stopped: the more time online, the more the brain showed signs of “atrophy.”

Ok. So researchers have shown that what many people would intuitively guess is a physical reality. The next step is to manage this inbound flow of information so that we achieve the optimal balance, which will be something individuals have to eventually manage for themselves. In the beginning it will be parents who set the boundaries. Much like with food, parents are the regulators of meals and snacks with the aim to raise a well-nourished child who understands how different foods affect their overall wellbeing. I would guess that in most cases, as soon as a kid is away from this regulatory influence, they binge on those things that are most restricted. It’s the way it is. My hope is that I can establish a good enough foundation of self awareness and general knowledge that eventually they’ll notice that they kinda feel like crap when they overindulge and remember the early lessons all about balance and variety. I expect digital media consumption to the follow this same pattern.

But that’s just the inbound flow. Much harder to manage and control is our brave new world of outbound flow.

Slowly but surely, we’ve all become used to the idea that everything we do online is being tracked and logged somewhere. Based on my own experience, I think the general assumption is that the sheer volume of the information we generate coupled with the decentralized nature of the internet means that even though everything is tracked, it is too hard to actually know sensitive details about a single individual. Essentially, privacy through obscurity, or “I’m not important enough to be a target.” However much I want to think this is true, it isn’t. And it certainly will become less true in the next few years. Even when I encounter specific examples of online tracking, like targeted ads showing me items I looked at previously on a completely unrelated website, I rationalize it by saying “it’s just a computer algorithm, not a real person.” Gathering consumer data and analyzing it is big business. It’s been given the soft name of “Big Data” but the name still carries the echo of “Big Brother.” If anyone with even a whiff of connection to a large, centralized group (e.g. government, insurance companies, etc) is seen to be using these resources, there is instant outcry. Similarly this is why every single change to Facebook’s privacy policy has met with such uproar. Each individual on Facebook has personally inputted sensitive pieces of personal information and then hoped that the system will be maintained and run responsibly and in their best interest. When stated like that, it sounds incredibly naïve. But the benefits of easily connecting and sharing our lives with others online so far out weighs the risks that we keep going and hope for the best.

This is dangerous.

It makes me think of a couple of tweets from Matt Jones a few months back:

We need to be aware of how things are connected and the strength or weakness of those connections. Ideally, we should all have enough technical literacy to inspect the rough inner workings of the services we use and rely on. However, the reality is that online services are quickly developing levels of sophistication that mirror the impenetrably complex workings of a new car. It used to be possible to fix your own car if you knew the systems and dependencies, but this isn’t the case anymore. The importance of technical literacy will continue to grow as our lives become more connected to and dependent on systems outside of our control. Previously, an individual ran the risk of losing their entire digital life (music, photos, videos, personal correspondence, etc) if their personal computer was irreparably damaged or stolen. The move to external, “cloud” based storage has alleviated that individual risk, and instead has distributed the risk across a huge number of people. When a very rare failure does happen (no redundancy or back up system is completely invulnerable) it is even more damaging because now a single breakdown has a cascading effect on many people instead of just one. This is assuming that the new start up where you’ve chosen to store your digital life doesn’t go bust or get shut down sometime in the next 50 some odd years…

The biggest cautionary tale in the last few weeks of online interdependencies was the story of how Mat Honan was hacked. According to him, as a result of a hacker taking a liking to his Twitter handle (@mat), his personal computer with all the photos and videos of his young daughter’s life and his primary Gmail account with years and years of correspondence were wiped out. As he investigated what happened (with help from the person who hacked him), he found out exactly how different, seemingly unconnected systems can be exploited with mostly publicly available information.

We have to take responsibility for our digital lives by investing time and effort in our own technical literacy and also demand transparency from the services we use so that we can make informed decisions about what gets stored where and how it is kept safe.

References:

The Workplace Benefits of Being Out of Touch
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/14/your-money/companies-see-benefit-of-time-away-from-mobile-devices.html?pagewanted=all

Is the Web Driving Us Mad?
http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/07/08/is-the-internet-making-us-crazy-what-the-new-research-says.html

You for Sale: Mapping, and Sharing, the Consumer Genome
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/technology/acxiom-the-quiet-giant-of-consumer-database-marketing.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all

How Big Data Became So Big
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/12/business/how-big-data-became-so-big-unboxed.html

How Apple and Amazon Security Flaws Led to My Epic Hacking
http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2012/08/apple-amazon-mat-honan-hacking/all/

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