Disclaimers

Below is a commentary minor rant, not necessarily a summary of scientific and academic literature on these topics. I refer to authors Sherry Turkle and Nicholas Carr, as well as Ancilla Tilia (nsfw), who apparently now gives talks at TheNextWeb (when did this happen?).

My main point: I'm tired of hearing this constantly recurring belief that technology is primarily detrimental for our well-being, relationships, safety, privacy, self-understanding.

Are there downsides?

Of course.

There always have been.

But these views are outdated and, oftentimes, uninformed. I've since received feedback that my tone comes off as "scornful" and "near authoritarian", and so be it: the world needs to wake up, y'all. Technology is here to stay, and while no one is forcing you to welcome rapid change with open arms (e.g., in communication, information retrieval, privacy, lifestyle), please just recognize progress for what it is: an opportunity for growth and transformation.

The above TNW piece (2015) raises this point:

We might have already lost our freedoms. For our future children, freedom will be a vague term that has no meaning to them. Freedom is already very difficult to define, and we might not realize that we have it until we don't have it anymore.

[...] We are ceasing to care about our privacy and with that, we are losing our freedom. Little by little, our freedoms are taken away. With every cashless payment we make, our purchase is analyzed and is not anonymous anymore. With public transportation cards, our every ride is monitored. With fingerprint access to our devices, we could be giving away a part of our identity.

What are the other ways privacy is being taken away from us? And what is the future of privacy protection?

In other words,

If privacy is knowledge, and knowledge is power, does this necessarily mean that we have lost our basic freedoms in the digital age? (NOVOTNA, 2015)

Short answer

Of course not. This is called technophobia and is, in fact, a sign of complete rejection of our modern world. Please keep up.

Longer answer

I've grown tired of hearing the persistent (pardon me) whine among those who claim the following:

Blog Flow

Blog Flow

[technological progress → widespread connection → loss of privacy → loss of knowledge (data security) → loss of power → loss of our basic human rights → humanity is doomed forever]

For the love of Steve Jobs please calm down.

A stepwise proof of the above illogical conclusions

Technological progress → Widespread connection

TRUE. The world is now more connected than ever before. Just two weeks ago, more than 1 billion people logged onto Facebook in a single day. Almost a quarter of the world is now on a single social media site that traverses cultural and geographic boundaries. The widening reach of global cell and Internet service is roping into "the grid" new populations from previously unconnected countries. Yes, technological progress is advancing at a near exponential rate, and is paving the way for widespread connection to a degree that not even Marshall McLuhan could have foreseen.

Widespread connection → Loss of privacy

It's TRUE that this ever-widening connection across people, industries, and societies has made the spread of information easier -- and cheaper -- than ever before. Not only has storage cost followed an exponential decline since the 1980s -- indeed, dropping from approximately $1 million per GB in 1980 to less than $0.10 in 2010 -- but the kinds of data being stored have grown more plentiful, more colorful, and more personal.

In the 1990s, it was no surprise that access to our credit card transactions, check deposit history, TV consumption, and landline phone calls could be tracked, monitored, and stored in data warehouses around the country.

In the 2000s, these borders expanded to include cell phone records, Internet browsing history, widespread public cameras (e.g., CCTV), iTunes purchases, e-mails.

By the 2010s, digital innovation added facial recognition, public transportation usage (i.e., with metro cards), music listening preferences...even technology use in our own homes (Hue lights, Nest thermostats).

Our world is connected. Even our most analog devices -- such as lightbulbs, locks, automobiles, sink faucets -- are connected to the vast Internet of Things (IoT).

Loss of privacy → Loss of knowledge (i.e., data security)

Is this information being stored? Obviously. But is the storage and analysis of this data the key to our inevitable doom? Of course not. For centuries, global societies have tweaked, tucked, and altered aspects of our day-to-day lives to fit the way we interact with the world around us. Fashions, fabrics, transportation, building materials, media consumption, packaged foods -- they have all undergone (sometimes quite monumental) changes to best fit the needs of an ever-evolving population. When new needs emerge, industries listen; as portability and global reach become increasingly important, our use of -- and integration with -- technology must change to reflect these priorities.

But darling, no one is out to get you -- or at least, not the companies who are assessing the most popular bus stops in your city, the most watched TV channels among your age group, or the most preferred overnight thermostat settings in your climate. Each piece of information that you add to the IoT is, for the most part, monitored separately: American Express is interested in how much the average American spends on Easter decorations, not the connection between your chocolate consumption, Fitbit activity and weight, Instagram photo tags, and terrorist activity (wait, what?). Even the most massive of organizations -- such as Google's trifecta of search engine, e-mail platform, and map-based navigation -- assess you as a data point only for their direct, and typically more minuscule, needs.

As of yet, there is no single data sink that assembles each and every piece of information that the IoT knows about you. Such a data sink may never exist. Corporations, governments, and legal entities around the world would have to enter into agreements that, considering the snail-like pace of Europe v. Facebook, would take decades. You are not that easy to track. To governments? Maybe. But if you're being tracked that closely by the FBI or NSA, you have greater things to worry about.

Note: I'm not claiming that there aren't those who would seek to use your information in harmful ways. Hackers and corporations alike also have ulterior motives, but that topic is for a later post at a later time. This post addresses the still prevalent fear of digital connection, online advertising, and the IoT in their most basic forms.

You are one data point out of millions, little more than a speck in the vast multitude of knowledge that the digital age has afforded our generation. At most, revolving around your identity as a human user are microscopic hints about your preferences and lifestyle (your Amazon Kindle purchases, your preference of cat breeds on humane society websites, your perusal  of Zillow listings in Fargo). These two-dimensional tastes of data are only helpful to the companies who most need them -- that is, the companies seeking to improve their products and tailor their offerings to you and your fellow users.

Again, no one is out to get you. *

* I'm assuming you don't use technology in a way that piques government interest, because if you do, (1) this statement probably doesn't pertain to you, and (2) you're on your own, sunshine.

Loss of power → Loss of our basic human rights

To briefly return to TNW's Ancilla Tilia,

[...] We are ceasing to care about our privacy and with that, we are losing our freedom. Little by little, our freedoms are taken away. With every cashless payment we make, our purchase is analyzed and is not anonymous anymore. With public transportation cards, our every ride is monitored. With fingerprint access to our devices, we could be giving away a part of our identity.

Listen up.

< scornful tone >

You don't get to complain about fears of cashless payments when Capital One calls to make sure a recent transaction 500 miles from your home is, in fact, your own. Don't try to wax poetic about the still-lingering potential for cash and coin in our society. Sit back down.

You don't get to complain about how easily Uber might be able to track your movements when it also has the power to monitor your location and safety to a degree unattainable by any previous form of public transportation.

You don't get to complain about fingerprint tracking when passwords have been overheard, overseen, and guessed at random since the use of watchwords in the ancient Roman military.

You don't get to complain about Google's hypothetical impact on our mental capacity when we now have access to more information than every generation before us, combined.

You don't get to complain aboutloneliness in the digital age when your potential for forming and maintaining infinite connections has never been so great -- when your ability to foster relationships with long-lost friends over an infinite geographic span has never been so instantaneous.

< / scornful tone >

Are there potential downsides to these aspects of security, convenience, and mobility? Absolutely. Is data security flawless? Dear god, no. But ask yourself, are these drawbacks worth the benefits that such innovations pose to our society and to the efficiency with which we navigate our daily lives?

Technology is here for good.

You can either accept it or you can pack your bags and move to the Serengeti (and good luck with that). But before you scoff and replay your minuscule broken record of impending digital doom on our society, consider this:

Technology has given you more power to change your daily life and future trajectory than could have been possible at any other point in history.

It's in your hands whether you want to sulk and blame loneliness on human interaction that is no longer limited to face-to-face contexts and the postal service.

It's in your hands whether you want to engage with technology in a way that engenders suspicion, distrust, and the rejection of our new reality.

At its core, the digital age has only helped us.

I get it: change is scary. Progress and innovation at a pace so unbelievably exponential is, at times, alarming. For one, the worldwide adoption of e-mail and a 1.6-billion-user social network has led to the greatest change in human communication since the dawn of writing...and that doesn't even touch on technology's impact in the workplace, in healthcare, in national defense.

But the next generation will grow in a world that offers them more opportunities than ever before. Perhaps against their will, they will indeed be intertwined into an ever-growing web of digitally connected humans and devices -- but this progress is not mutually exclusive with our current understanding of freedom.

No one is forcing you to take out your phone while standing in line at Starbucks, rather than initiating conversation with the stranger in front of you.

No one is tying you down in front of your computer screen while nature beckons outside your window.

No one is threatening you at gunpoint to to don a VR device and release your hold on the physical world as we know it.

So calm down.

You can keep your privacy. No one's after your basic human rights. You have the full power to interact with the digital age in whatever way best suits your interests -- but sweetheart, that's on you.