A friend of mine asked for some advice for escaping what he referred to as “Google’s all-seeing eye.” He explained that he installed Firefox and added an extension to it that turned off websites’ abilities to track his online activity. He explained that he had eschewed Google’s search engine for DuckDuckGo, which prioritizes privacy and anonymity over targeted advertising. He has managed to distribute his bookmarks and favorites to all his devices using Firefox’s synchronizing features. However, he hasn’t found a suitable replacement for Google maps, and he needs help figuring out how to get his contacts synced and available across all his devices. And he has found nothing to rival GMail in terms of cross-platform convenience. He asked me for advice.
I have nothing for him.
We seem to have reached a point where convenience has become so seductive that not even an exorcism could help us resist its pull. Even when the day brings us news of five million GMail addresses and passwords stolen, we convince ourselves it’s not that big a deal because they likely belong to those who gave in to phishing scams and used dumb passwords. We keep shopping, handing over our charge card numbers to more and more websites,even after so many of us traded in our charge cards shortly after Christmas when hackers hit Target, thanks to lax security controls at one of the retail giant’s numerous small and impossible-to-supervise subcontractors. The companies we look to for ever-improving services at ever-shrinking prices request more and more information from us, and we give it to them, because … well … we want ever-improving services at ever-shrinking prices.
Increasingly, our phones and computers feed us articles that might just as well be read by someone narrating our lives. In almost real time, the pages we visit pitch stories and ads that connect perfectly with the place we just visited, the food we just ate, the book we just bought, and the status we just posted. There have been several times over the past few months when I’ve wondered whether The Cloud had planted a microphone on me, listening in on my conversations so that it could send me up-to-the-second ads I might find irresistible.
This week, my iTunes account gave me the gift of music, a new album by U2, one of my favorite bands. It’s a good album. Honestly, though, I could have bought it myself, and I likely would have. I didn’t need Apple to purchase it for me to get me to buy yet another device to tether me to the almighty data collection complex in the cloud. Music is one of life’s purest joys. It doesn’t sit well to have it spoon-fed to me by entities who think they’ll know what my fellow 500 million automatons and I like. It should be a personal experience, not an enticement to buy the latest location-tracking, picture-snapping, always-connected data siphon. It shouldn’t be imposed like the “Everything Is Awesome” soundtrack in The Lego Movie. Music touches the heart and engages the mind. Who has our hearts now? Who owns our minds?
My toll transponder malfunctioned today, and I knew immediately that the toll booth likely snapped a picture of my plate, and I’ll be receiving a ticket soon. Or, within seven days, I could go online, enter my charge card number, and my sins will be forgiven. Pick my poison, I guess.
I teach Computer Science. I prepare people to create the technology that has brought us here. It has become increasingly clear to me that I have a responsibility to teach them that, just because something can be built, it doesn’t mean it should. The things we build can wield tremendous power, a power “in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in shapes of [our] own choosing.” The technology we make seeks to know us better than we know us by shaping us into who it wants us to be. We can’t let it, even if our inner geek tells us that the technology is so cool that we need to keep it coming. There is a point that is too far. Perhaps we’re already there.