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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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.