Our Technological Adolescence

butterfly emerges from its cocoon

Note: I am writing as a citizen and resident of the United States of America but I believe that the ideas in this post apply equally to all of us as human beings as fellow citizens of the world.

We hear it every day. Us vs. them. Right vs. left. Republican vs. Democrat. Red vs. blue. Globalization vs. protectionism. Urban vs. rural. Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. How did we get here? Why do we seem to be more divided than ever?

A lot has changed in the world over the last twenty to thirty years. Technology has become a bigger and more dominant part of our everyday lives, changing the way we relate to each other and to the world around us. How are we handling that change? I would answer, “Not well.”

As human beings, we have a tendency to hold on to what we know best and resist change when that change is scary or particularly unknown. As we do this as individuals we start to seek out others who think like us, for comfort. Our journalists have been taught to distill stories down to “just the facts”, largely erasing the broad spectrum of struggles that are going on by individuals that don’t fit their story. (See this wonderful article for the beginning of a solution to this problem in journalism.) While this is understandable, it only serves to divide us further.

Collectively, no matter what “side” we are on, we all seem to be deeply dissatisfied with where we are politically and culturally. We are asking ourselves and each other (or we should be), “How did we get here and what do we do?” Perhaps an analogy will give some perspective and provide some direction. By way of illustration, I will share something a little personal.

Growing up, I was the “good kid” in my family. I got good grades and did what I was told (mostly). I graduated second in my high school class and attended Georgetown University receiving a bachelor’s degree in Russian. By all outward definitions, I was a success. But inwardly, I was still an adolescent. I had made no decisions about who I was at a fundamental level. Worse, I didn’t even realize it. I had goals and ideals, but these were ones that I had received from my community. I wanted to help the world not blow itself up. That’s why I studied Russian at (what we didn’t know then was) the end of the Cold War. I wanted to have a wife and family, so I got married and had children. But I wasn’t connected to what it really meant to be a husband and father. I simply expected things to happen and just fall into place like they had throughout my life in school prior to my growing into adulthood. So while I had become an adult, I had never really grown up. Ultimately, this led to a decades long breakdown in my relationship with my wife, finally ending in divorce.

This completely exploded my view of myself and my place in the world and forced me back to deal with my incomplete adolescence in a way that I never had in my teen years and early twenties. I am convinced that if I had used my teen years to wrestle with the questions of adolescence, then much of the pain I experienced and caused others over the past three decades could have largely been avoided. And I fear that my country is in the midst of avoiding its own adolescence brought on by the drastic changes in technology that are affecting every aspect of our daily lives and that this is expressing itself in the division and separateness we feel from others. We are so afraid that our way of seeing and interacting in the world is going away that we are clinging to it and trying to beat the other side into accepting it. This will never work, because our way (whichever way that is) will no longer work due to these profound technological changes affecting our politics and economics. We are in the “teen” years of our global technological adolescence. We need to figure out what this great change means for our coming adult lives in this new world of technology, globalization, and relative abundance. Our current solutions aren’t designed with the new realities we are dealing with, so none of them is likely to work. We need new models and views of our world based on these new realities. But where will these new models come from. I suggest that the answers lies in returning first to the universal lessons of our childhood.

From 1968 to 2001, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood taught children about their world and how it works. The host, Fred Rogers, also spoke directly to his young viewers about difficult subjects like death and anger. And he ended each show by telling each viewer that he or she was special “just by being you…. And people can like you just for being you.”

In 1986, Robert Fulghum published All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Here is an excerpt that succinctly describes the lesson expanded on throughout the book:

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.

These are the things I learned:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.

And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

These are not partisan ideals; they are human ideals and principles. All our politics and economies have grown out of these. And since the changes we are in the midst of experiencing seem to have blown up the models we have built since the industrial revolution, now is the time to think up new models and identities that will work in this new environment, together. Is it scary? It sure is. But we cannot avoid this “growing up”; we can only put it off. And putting it off will only make the transition more scary and difficult. We have to “embrace the suck” in the short term to get to the freedom and joy of adulthood on the other side. If we don’t, we will only extend the discomfort and pain of this transition period. What exactly lies on that other side? None of us really knows, but let’s explore it together with the same sense of wonder and joy that accompany the fear of growing up into the unknown.

What’s with All the Privacy Policy Updates?

If you have a lot of online accounts, you have likely received many notices over the last few weeks regarding privacy policy updates. There is a simple reason for this. It’s called the GDPR or the General Data Protection Regulation. If you don’t live in the European Union, you might not be familiar with it. It is an EU law that goes into effect tomorrow (May 25, 2018) “to give control to citizens and residents over their personal data.” Because so many Internet-based companies do business worldwide, it is easier for many of them to simply adopt the practices necessary to meet the GDPR for all of their users. That’s why you are getting all those emails asking you to review new privacy policies.

So how does the GDPR affect citizens of the EU and the users of companies that adopt the GDPR in general? Here are some highlights.

  • Companies who collect any personal information from you must
    • clearly disclose what data is being collected and how
    • why it is being processed
    • how long it is being retained
    • if it is being shared with any third-parties
  • You have the right to request a portable version of the data collected and stored about you in a common format that would be easy for you to read; in other words, they can’t send it to you in a file format that you would need to purchase expensive software to read
  • You have the right to have your data erased in certain circumstances
  • Any breach of data must be reported within 72 hours
  • And any business who primarily processes personal data must appoint a Data Protection Officer (DPO) who is responsible for managing all this

Keep in mind that these regulations only legally apply to those individuals within the EU and companies who do business within the EU. However, since so many companies do business around the world and collect personal information to do so, there is a high likelihood that you will have many more ways to control how your data is stored and shared.

Be sure to not simply ignore all those updates to those privacy policies. It is worth taking a little time to review them. They should be much easier and clearer now in many cases due to the new GDPR regulations that take affect tomorrow in the EU.

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, 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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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.