My two oldest offspring suffer from iPod deafness. Attempts at conversations receive (at best) a “Huh?” until, frustrated, my wife or I yell, “Take off those *&%=#@ earplugs!” Some days, I can’t remember the sound of their voices until their lip-syncing evolves into a low hum.
Jean-Paul Sartre said that every age has its poetry. Ubiquitous and inexpensive information technology supports the poetry of our age. It’s being written every moment of every day by teenagers, soccer moms, and professionals. The results are mostly farce, occasionally tragic, and rarely private.
It starts with teenagers
Tried having a sustained conversation with a teenager recently? Never easy in any era, today it’s nearly impossible. Most teens suffer from SMS attention deficit, or its espresso cousin, Twitter buzz. The symptoms are easy to spot. Every two minutes, the teenager looks down at a small, thin box, thumbs typing memes such as “r u ok?” After 15 seconds, the teen looks up and asks, “Um, what were we talking about?”
Ignoring everyone in close proximity might appear rude to a person of a certain age. That is unfair, of course. Many teenagers will eventually grow out of this behavior and develop empathy for others.
Then again, many won’t. Blackberry addiction is prevalent among many professional adults (myself included). This addiction leads to a range of behaviors that would be rude if they weren’t so absurdly comic.
Consider what the mobile Internet has done to some basic parental activities. For example, soccer mom messaging is prevalent in many affluent neighborhoods. A parent shows up at a child’s soccer game (or baseball game or gymnastics meet or school sing-along), and, rather than socialize with other parents, sits in the upper corner of the viewing stands, looking at some device and answering email. Typically, the parent will look up when the event gets interesting (or their child starts singing). In extreme cases, however, the parent will lose touch, look up randomly, and ask, “What’s the score?” If parents make any small talk at all, it concerns the merits of different calendaring systems for their mobile devices. Kids, what kids?
A related behavior blossoms at high-technology conferences with “2.0” or greater in the title. Although these conferences concern the development of tools for nurturing social interplay on the Internet, rather unsocial behavior occurs at them. There is an irony here somewhere, needless to say.
The keynote speech unleashes blog herding. Not long after introductions, more than half of the audience starts reading a blog about other sessions missed at the conference. Another group begins writing a blog. Less than a quarter of the audience devotes their full attention to the speaker.
Miss Manners would not approve. Behavior linked to Internet protocols substitutes for the traditional protocols of mannered social interplay.
A bigger mess
It gets worse when many people become involved. The modern Internet has become a valet to a new type of societal moment, one in which ubiquitous information technology supports different—not necessarily better—societal interactions.
It also leads to cheap and permanent information disclosure. Consider the loss of anonymity, a common occurrence today. This comes in various forms. Perhaps the least harmful unwanted loss comes in the form of an unexpected email from a former lover. This is not a major existential moment for most people. If they cannot handle this sort of email, their present relationship was in trouble anyway. Contrast this with finding a long lost friend, which is also a reduction in anonymity, but a welcome one. On balance, this benefit outweighs the drawbacks, so most of us participate online without hesitance.
Is loss of anonymity a big deal? Not for most people, at least not initially. The costs usually come later, when somebody’s foible erodes anonymity in unexpected ways. Consider the following example.
In 2006, a researcher at AOL attempted to crowd-source the Internet research community. He gathered data on more than 20 million search queries for more than 600K users. He put the data on a site with unrestricted access. He expected to learn useful things (for free!) from many smart people who wanted access to such data for their research. In fact, the researcher did learn something interesting, just not what he had set out to learn.
These data were stripped of the identity of the households, but—oops—some households self-surfed, searching for their own names and home addresses. Some households also searched for factoids about their neighbors. Anonymity, what anonymity? Their names were right there. That was not all. Signs of other common human foibles appeared, such as kinky tastes and illegal appetites—things that would have otherwise remained behind closed doors. Surprised by this, the researcher tried to close the site. However, the data had begun to circulate and there was no getting it back. Copies still circulate today.
In another era, this database would be sent to the shredder. Not today. It is too expensive to erase the digital past. In brief, the modern Internet lacks an undo button.
No sense of humor
The lack of an undo button sometimes makes me lose my sense of humor. For example, consider the news of Tim Russert’s death. Following standard protocols, news organizations embargoed the news until next of kin could be notified. Someone down the chain did not get the word, however, and the news ended up on Russert’s Wikipedia page for 11 minutes. It spread from there. Imagine how awful it would be to learn of a friend or relative’s death this way.
The lack of undo buttons in Web 2.0 applications also makes me lose my sense of humor. Designers of the most popular Web 2.0 applications correctly understood that users would hesitate to participate out of such fear about privacy. Accordingly, many of the pioneers took LinkedIn’s approach and gave users lots of control. Indeed, that helps adoption because it directly addresses user’s fear, but it leads to deliberate and slow growth. The early growth strategy for Facebook and MySpace illustrates another approach—building a site on the activities of the incautious young and innocent. No exaggeration, these sites built their installed base by helping young adults blithely share their private lives with one another. It led to fast growth.
Which begs a question: Do most young adults have much of substance to share? In fact, they do, but they also probably will want to forget about it a decade from now. Think of it this way. A few years from now some present Facebook participants will claim they did not inhale. Yet, there is nothing preventing a determined prosecutor from getting a Facebook entry that verifies the opposite.
That hints at the deeper problem with having no undo button. It is challenging to selectively opt in and opt out. Participating in one platform, such as Facebook, brings several things simultaneously—more interactions with others, less anonymity, and no digital shredder. With no undo button, you need an almost blind faith to participate in something new without worrying about its unforeseeable consequences.
Lest that sound too paranoid, let me illustrate with a story from the frontiers of online privacy. An enterprising police force in a Midwestern college town found itself in a chase one night. The police captured only one suspect. The others fled the scene. What did the police do next? They went to the suspect’s Facebook page and found several friends who happened to look like those who fled.
Contrast that with this story. I have Canadian friend who held a ticket on one of the hijacked September 11th airplanes and had the dumb luck to not get on that plane. To his friends he obviously had no connection with the attacks on the World Trade Center. Since that day, however, his name has been on a list, and a US government employee hassles him almost every single time he steps in an airport.
Are there issues with police and prosecutorial uses of information technology? Not if all police and prosecutors show good judgment, and all the suspects are truly guilty. Yet, that is not the world we live in, nor will it ever be.
The online world is evolving, but where to? It is increasingly expensive to raise barriers against interacting with others, increasingly expensive to hide personal history, and increasingly expensive to prevent the foibles of one from affecting many.
Society is conducting a huge poetry session with the unwitting help of teenagers, soccer moms, criminals, and professionals. And whether we all like it or not, there is no selective opting in to or out from this poem. In short, there is no exit.
A pdf copy of the original essay. Copyright held by IEEE.