Informed Convenience

The GAFA companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon) were on Capitol Hill earlier this month facing Congress. The questions asked of them boiled down to, “Do you realize how your services can be used to subvert our democracy? Are you taking this as seriously as your bottom line?” The not so subtle threat behind this is the possibility of government regulation. And Congress wasn’t impressed by who they sent, either. Instead of their CEOs, they all sent lawyers. It seems that maybe they aren’t taking this as seriously as they should. This got me to wondering, “How did we get here?”

When these now giant companies started in the 90s, they were just startups. Amazon’s business plan didn’t show it making a profit for ten years. Facebook was the way college students (only) connected with each other. Google was a new search engine that was only starting to replace Yahoo! as people’s first choice to find things on the internet. And Apple was a niche computer maker with a very small part of the market. Each of these companies worked like crazy to attract users. They focused on serving those users and a big part of that was making a space to meet a particular need and then getting out of the user’s way. In many ways, they were legitimately creating a (largely) free and unfettered online community. You could say and do whatever you wanted. What you saw on Facebook was all the updates of all your friends, no matter how overwhelming. But as the internet grew and mobile computing came along in 2007, this changed.

Those funding these startups began to pressure them to be profitable and go public. Advertising began to be more and more a part of the experience. And, with the overwhelming amount of information that became available, they all began to curate their user experience in some way. And we all welcomed this help sorting through the sea of information that the internet became. But we never evolved our understanding of these companies along with that change. They stopped being simple meeting places and tools. They started to become filters of our online experiences. Again, not bad — just a fact. Instead of using their products, we became the product.

How can we keep the services we like and use everyday without being taken advantage of? I think the key is transparency. I don’t mean that Facebook and Google should publish their algorithms. I do mean that they should explain broadly what their algorithms do. For example, it was sometime after they changed their feed policy before I learned that I was no longer simply seeing an unfiltered list of my Facebook friends’ feeds. Facebook now only shows you some of the feeds of your friends. If you look at your friend’s page itself you will see it all, but they show you only the best and what they think will keep you on Facebook. And they insert promoted content, too. They weren’t transparent about this. They should be.

These companies continue to claim that they should not be responsible for the content published on their platforms as they have no control over what users post. At the same time, they manipulate what their users see without clearly telling them that’s what they are doing. They can’t have it both ways. They need to go back to being completely unfiltered, or be transparent about the way they are curating the user experience. And if they choose neither, Congress is likely to begin regulating them.

In the meantime, what is the average user to do? All this change behind the scenes is frustrating and makes us feel used. Indeed, many say we are being used, that we are the product being sold rather than being the customer. For me the answer is what I call informed convenience. The internet and mobile are such a part of our everyday lives that there is no going back. Short of not having a mobile phone at all or never using the internet, we will encounter these companies and their products. So, we need to become better digital citizens. How do we do that without becoming paralegals in order to understand those Terms of Service we all have to agree to but never read?

Today there are many tools and websites to help you figure out in plain English what the terms of service are for a site or service. Here are three I found on a quick search:

  1. Terms of Service; Didn’t Read
  2. Clickwrapped
  3. Terms & Conditions Checker

Also, use the tools many of these companies have started to provide or use alternative services. Encrypt your computer hard drive and smartphone (both Android and iPhone have this capability). Make sure you know what rights you are giving up by using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Use DuckDuckGo for search instead of Google because DuckDuckGo doesn’t track you. Pay for private email instead of using free email that it selling information about you. Buy books at your local bookstore instead from Amazon.

And if you are okay with what all of these companies are doing, don’t do anything differently. I am not trying to tell you what services you should or shouldn’t use. I am suggesting that you decide knowing what you are agreeing to. After doing a little research you may find that you have to give up a little convenience to live closer to the digital life you want to live. That’s okay. And rather than unknowingly being used, you will be practicing informed convenience.

 


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Listening to Each Other

With all that has been going on in politics in the United States over the last year, it can be easy to think that it is a new thing that we as Americans and even human beings aren’t doing a good job of listening to each other. Let me explain what I mean.

Last week I read an article by US Army veteran green beret Nate Boyer. It was an open letter addressing the controversy over what, if anything, should be done about players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games. Interestingly, the author of that open letter met with Colin Kaepernick after his first protest — sitting on the bench during the national anthem. In the meeting, Boyer made it a point to listen to Kapernick. Afterward, he felt that Kapernick had listened to his perspective as a veteran. It was after that meeting that Kapernick started kneeling next to his teammates instead of sitting on the bench. Boyer expressed that he has no issue with that and doesn’t feel it is disrespectful. There are plenty of others who do feel it is inappropriate. But he points out that the real issue here is not the dispute. It is that we are so stuck in our own perspectives that we are unwilling to accept that someone else could think very differently about an issue than we do. His prescription for the current dispute over this issue? The President of the United States (who has repeatedly expressed that he feels such protests are wrong) and Kolin Kapernick should meet and listen to each other.

I opened this post by saying that this lack of listening feels new. But it’s not. This afternoon I watched the movie Hacksaw Ridge. It was released last year and tells the story of a soldier in World War II who refused to carry a gun. He saved 75 of his fellow soldiers during a gruesome battle and was the only conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. And no one listened to him, either. His fellow soldiers assumed that he was a coward for his refusal to carry a gun. The fact is that he felt very strongly about the war and his need to serve. He just wanted to do it saving lives as an Army medic. Due to this lack of understanding, his fellow soldiers and commanding officers tried to get him discharged or make him quit. He refused to quit or carry a gun. After the battle of Okinawa ended on the first day, he stayed on the ridge continuing to risk his life to pull injured men to safety — 75 of them, including some injured Japanese. They had refused to listen to Private Desmond Doss.

One way we can learn from Private Doss is to follow his actions. He did not spend a lot of time trying to convince other of his convictions or even try to make them understood. Instead he acted on his convictions and tried to understand those around him. Now that is something that seems to be missing from our current civil and social discourse. I only hope that we will learn from a hero of the Greatest Generation and follow the advice of recent veteran Nate Boyer and simply listen to each other with a heart to understand. Only then will true progress be possible.

Intuitive and Logical Thinking

This week, as I always do, I listened to the latest podcast episode of On Being. I like to describe it as an interview program that explores where spirituality and religion touch everyday life. I find it both practical and inspiring. Each week, the host (Krista Tippett) interviews a different guest. This week’s interviewee was Daniel Kahneman, the bestselling author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. While I haven’t yet read the book (it is on my electronic “pile” of books to read on my ereader), I am fascinated by his concept of System 1 thinking and System 2 thinking which he discusses in this interview.

He describes System 1 thinking as the kind of thinking that happens when someone asks you what the answer is to two plus two. You don’t think about it or do any calculating. The answer comes effortlessly because it is already there in your consciousness. System 2 thinking is more linear and deliberate. It’s what happens when someone asks you to solve seventeen times twenty-four. You have to go step by step through the process of multiplying to arrive at the answer. He goes into how these two systems work together and how what starts out as System 2 thinking can often become automatic System 1 thinking (like driving a car or riding a bike).

In addition to each interview produced for the hour-long program and podcast, On Being also publishes each complete and unedited interview on Soundcloud. I don’t listen to these each week, but I was so fascinated by the produced interview and how it relates to much of what I have been reading and thinking about technology, boredom, and deep work that I decided to listen to it. I am so glad I did! At about 1:25:30 into the interview, he is in the midst of talking about artificial intelligence when he mentions my favorite game — the ancient board game of go. He talks about how he is fascinated by the fact that a computer program has finally beaten professional humans at a game that is based largely on System 1 thinking, or intuition.

I like to think about System 1 and System 2 thinking as intuition and logic, respectively. One of the many reasons why go is my favorite game is that it combines both of these kinds of thinking. In order to play well consistently, you need to be able to think both logically and intuitively.

Playing the game also helps players learn to balance big picture thinking (strategy) with what to do in specific situations (tactics). The game is most popular in east Asia (China, Japan, and Korea in particular). Playing go into their advanced years has been credited with keeping people mentally sharp while business men and women use it as a model for competing in business.

The social aspects of the game are fascinating as well. Each game is started by wishing your opponent a good game and at the end players thank each other for the game and often review together in a friendly way where things went well or took a bad turn. The combination of cognitive and social aspects of the game, I find deeply intriguing; I simply love this game! And the fact that a reference to it showed up in one of the podcasts I regularly listen to was a wonderful moment of serendipity.

If you are interested in learning more about the game of go, here is an excellent article recently published in Chicagoly magazine. You can also learn how and where to play in your local area (US only) at usgo.org.

Technology and Compassion

Like many in our country, I have become more and more concerned about the division in the US. I realize that these divisions are nothing new. There have always been divisions. Black vs. white. Poor vs. rich. American vs. immigrant. Liberal vs. conservative. Old vs. young. But something is different today. We seem to have lost our compassion for those not like us. How did we get here? Could it in some way be related to technology? Let me explain —

Modern computers are binary. That means they work by turning on or off a lot of electronic switches. They only have one state or the other. This is most frequently expressed as zeroes and ones. Could this way of thinking affect the way we think about the rest of life? Take cell phones, for instance. Most likely the first thing you thought about was a smartphone, perhaps even thinking of an iPhone or an Android phone. This is another duality, but it is a false one. True, the two major smartphone systems are iPhone built by Apple and Android, a Google product. However, there are other smartphone systems. There were briefly systems based on the Ubuntu version of Linux and the Firefox browser. And Microsoft made a Windows phone. Yet the majority of conversation is between only Apple and Google versions. Are you team Android? Or team iPhone?

We see this played out in our politics. Are you team liberal or team conservative? Again, this is a false choice and divisive! There is an infinite variety of thoughts and opinions between and around these two choices. It’s kind of like the rainbow. Where does red stop and orange begin? There is not a stark dividing line between red and orange. Rather there is a subtle blending from red to orange. This is true in politics as well. Even the leaders of team red (Republican) and team blue (Democrat) cannot agree exactly what it means to be on their team. There is a spectrum of opinions on each team. And there are many other teams (and colors, and their shades) than just red and blue.

One final analogy. I once had a car with a radio that had a “notched” volume dial. It was a traditional knob but it did not rotate smoothly. Instead it had little individual stopping points; it bumped from one to the next. I found that one notch was a little too quiet for when I was driving. The next bump up was a little too loud for what I wanted. And because it was notched, there was no way to fine tune between those two spots on the dial. I found this very frustrating. But it seems we are “notching” much of our lives today in very similar ways.

Much of our day-to-day lives is governed by technology, especially our cars and phones. Many decisions are made for us in these spaces by manufacturers. They decide what gets made based on what they perceive will appeal to the most people. Perhaps this homogenization, or at least reduction, of our choices is leading to a lack of openness and compassion for those on the “other” team.

But life is not digital! In the physical, analog world there are a wide variety of nearly unlimited possibilities and ways of expressing ourselves. Life is infinitely individual rather than “this” or “that”. And in that world, the most important question may be “how” rather that “what”. “How” do we treat ourselves and others regardless of the team we are on rather than “what” we think about a particular issue. After all, no one ever argued someone into agreeing with them. That comes through seeing “how” the world looks through their eyes. This doesn’t mean we have to agree with everyone, just understand that they have different thoughts and experiences that are as equally valid as our own. And perhaps this will bring more compassion and understanding, creating a better world for all. It’s a start, at least.

How I Took Back Control from my Smartphone

There was a time when I felt phantom phone vibrations. That’s when you feel a notification vibration on your smartphone, pull it out to check what notified you, and realize that it never vibrated – there is no notification. If this has ever happened to you, it might be time to scale back your use of your smartphone. Here is how I did it.

First, I turned off all the notifications on my phone. All of them – email, social media, games. Anything that pings you to look at your phone. All of these apps install with notifications turned on. The currency of these apps is our attention and they are all vying for it. So I took it away. When I want to look at these app, I will decide when I look at my phone, not the programmer of these apps.

Next, I removed all of the unused apps on my phone. There were a lot of apps that I downloaded to try out but didn’t use anymore. So I simply removed them from my phone. If they aren’t there, they cannot distract me or take up space on my phone.

I don’t use social media very much. When I do, it seems to suck me in like one of those bad movies that you just can’t stop watching. Wanting to gain some more control over my time and attention, I decided to remove all social media apps from my phone. If I want to look at Facebook or Twitter on my phone, I still can. I just need to do it in a browser. That little bit of extra work means that I really need to want to do it.

I also removed all the games from my phone. I realized that, like social media, they were just another time suck. When I was bored or didn’t know what to do, they would call to me mentally, drawing my hand to my phone and turning on the screen. Again, if the app isn’t there, it can’t distract me.

It’s amazing the freedom this has brought me. I am reading many more books now. I committed on Goodreads to reading forty books this year. I am ahead of schedule and expect to finish more than that by the end of the year. I no longer feel like a slave to my phone nor do I feel those phantom vibrations. My smartphone feels more like the tool it is – a tool that serves me rather than the other way around.

I got some of the ideas for this digital detox from a fantastic podcast called Note to Self, particularly the series called Bored and Brilliant which is also a book that is coming out soon. I recommend you check out the podcast and consider pre-ordering the book. Another great series from that podcast is the Privacy Paradox. And in the sidebar to the right is a list of other podcasts I listen to that you might find interesting, entertaining, or helpful.

Let me know in the comments if you find any of this helpful. I really appreciate feedback. It helps me get better.


P.S. Last week I ended my post by telling you that I would explain why you might want to use open source software. In preparing to write this week’s post I realized something important – nobody would care because it isn’t very easy to take action on for the average user. Since my goal on this blog is to empower the average user, I decided to skip it. If you are interested in learning more about open source software, take a look at Ubuntu or Libre Office. You can also contact me to ask me a specific question, if you’d like.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Windows XP

You shouldn’t use Windows XP. If you do, your computer could be being used by criminals to send spam and hack other sites. Let me explain.

All software is imperfect and has flaws. These flaws are called bugs (Read this to see why). Updates are released periodically by the makers of software to fix these bugs, making the software work better.

Some of the bugs in software are simply annoying, kind of like a typo in a novel you might read. It makes you pause while your are reading, but it doesn’t prevent you from understanding the story.

Other bugs are security threats. This is more like when you lose your keys or your wallet. It’s a real pain if you don’t find them because then you need to change your locks or get new credit cards.

Software companies only support their software for a limited period of time. As they release new versions of their software, it becomes harder to support multiple versions. So they eventually stop supporting the older versions.

An operating system is the software that runs your computer. If you use a Mac, your operating system (OS) is likely Apple OS X. If you are using a PC, you are most likely using some version of Windows. Windows has gone through many versions over the years. The latest version is Windows 10.

Windows XP was released in 2001. It was supported for over 12 years (that is a very long time!). Support and security patches ended on April 8, 2014. That means that any bugs, including security bugs, that were found after that date will no longer be fixed. So if you are currently running Windows XP on your computer, your computer is at a high risk of being compromised in some way (e.g. getting a virus or becoming part of a botnet).

If your are currently using Windows XP, there are two things you can do to use your computer more safely:

  1. Upgrade your computer to a version of Windows that is supported, like Windows 7 or Windows 8 or Windows 10 (there is no Windows 9)
  2. Install a free open source operating system like Ubuntu, a flavor of the Linux operating system

If you are looking to choose number 1, you will most likely need to buy a newer computer. It is very likely that your computer hardware is too old and slow to run a newer version of Windows. To determine if this is your situation, you can go to Best Buy and ask the Geek Squad or call your local computer tech guy for help. You can also contact me. I’d be happy to help you.

If you choose to go with choice 2, you can almost certainly use the computer hardware you currently have. You will still likely need help installing the new operating system without losing any of your data. You can go to the same sources as choice 1 for help, including me.

Next week I will go over why you might want to consider using open source software even if you don’t need to upgrade from Windows XP.

Lots of Questions!

Framingham Public Library

The presentation on Friday went extremely well. Even before the presentation started, audience members were asking questions. We started on time, and it wasn’t very long before my prepared remarks became reference notes for answering questions. Everyone was very interested and took notes. Everything I prepared to cover is in the outline on this page. In addition we covered the following:

  • Don’t ever access sensitive financial information while you are on public wifi
  • How to avoid phishing scams where emails seem to come from a reputable sort but they are really from hackers
  • How to avoid “social engineering” attacks; for example, when you receive an unexpected call from your bank, do NOT verify your PIN or password as your bank will never ask for it

I also found some appropriate library books on security and privacy, displaying them at the front of the room. After the talk, many attendees came up to ask for help with individual questions. I even helped one person to put a new more secure password on his iPhone.

All in all, it was a very successful and well-received event. The library may be interested in a similar evening talk. I am also looking for other venues to present at. If you know of anyone who would like a similar presentation, please contact me. And I am also available to help individuals on a one-on-one basis.

Live Presentation

Every year my local library has a summers series of lunch presentations on Fridays. Last year they invited me to present on the topic of passwords. I am doing a similar presentation this Friday at noon about Password Security and Privacy. See the details in the flyer below. Next week, I will review the experience here on my blog.

In preparation for the event, I have been reading a recent book about privacy and security called The Art of Invisibility by Kevin Mitnick. The author is a hacker who explains a bit how technology works and a lot about how it affects you and your privacy and security. One of the most important points he makes is to make sure that you have a password on your smartphone. This will be one my first points in my presentation on Friday. If you are in the area, I hope to see you there!

Take a Tech Break!

Yesterday I just couldn’t bring myself to sit down at my computer… at all. I schedule Sunday afternoons to write for this blog. But yesterday, I just couldn’t do it. I love technology, but sometimes I have had enough. Especially on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. So, I took a tech break!

I went to a local wildlife sanctuary and just walked through the woods for about an hour and a half by myself. The paths were beautiful. I saw a young deer and four turkeys. I thought about taking pictures. I even pulled my phone from my pocket to take one. But then I realized… I’m taking a tech break! I wanted to experience the woods and the wildlife, not view it from the screen of my phone.

I continued through the woods until I reached the river on the edge of the sanctuary. As I walked along the river bank it started to lightly rain. I stayed mostly dry as I walked due to the canopy of leaves overhead, and I enjoyed the sound of the rain on those leaves as I continued down the path. On my return to the entrance I passed many waterfalls and listened to the birds sing across the marshy pond.

It was a wonderful afternoon. Our modern world is filled with gadgets and screens, but sometimes I need to leave them home or in my pocket and just get out there and connect with the real world. I encourage you to do the same. I’m glad I did!

Why I Won’t Just “Give You the Steps”

Often when I help someone with learning to use their tech, they want me to just “give them the steps”. I almost always refuse to do this. It’s like giving directions that simply say, “Go 2 miles and turn left. Go another 3/4 of a mile and turn right. My house is a mile and half down on the left.” While these may be accurate, they aren’t particularly helpful if I get lost on the way or miss a turn.

But add a little context to the instructions and not only does it help in case I get lost, it helps prevent me front getting lost in the first place. “Go straight for 2 miles and turn left at the light by the Dairy Queen. At the third light, make a right onto Oak Street. Our driveway is the first on the left after you cross over the creek. It’s the one with the blue mailbox. If you get to a stop sign, you have gone too far.” (By the way, these are completely fictitious directions. If you follow them and get somewhere, it definitely won’t be my house.)

The context here is the little details that help you stay oriented as you go. The Dairy Queen. How many light to go through. The color of my mailbox. How to tell if you have passed my driveway. Without these little signposts, the directions are much harder to follow. And if you strayed from them, getting back on track would be very difficult if not impossible.

This also applies to technical instructions. The little extras I give you in addition to the step-by-step instructions are almost more important than the steps themselves because they help keep you oriented in the new, unfamiliar tech space. And if something goes a little wrong, you have a better chance of getting back on track and being successful.

It does take a bit longer to receive these types of instructions and internalize them, but it is worth it. It’s a bit like getting a map to go along with your turn-by-turn instructions. Imagine if all your GPS did was tell you where to turn and didn’t show you on that little map on the screen. Would it work? Sure, but that little line showing you how to go makes it so much easier. And that’s what I do for the people I work with. My job is to provide the step-by-step instructions together with what the surroundings look like as you go.

So the next time someone gives you instructions for how to do something new, if they don’t give you any context be sure to ask for some, just in case you get lost along the way.