Contemplation: Where Everybody Knows Your Status

I have written about the nature of online presence and existence and the usefulness of various Internet applications and tools here before (which is kind of meta really considering that this, being a blog, happens to be just one such application of Internet use).  Still I constantly seem to find myself with new things to consider and think about in regards to an increasingly online population and world.

What really got me thinking about this contemplation was the short article “Party On, but No Tweets” by Allen Salkin from the New York Times.  The basic idea described in the article is kind of a push back against the seeming ubiquitous necessity of maintaining a constant online presence through such things as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, email, instant messaging, etc.  As such certain bars and clubs, as well as a number of social groups, are developing rules about the use of such technology while attending meetings or visiting a location.  What this article got me to thinking about more than anything else though was just how much of our lives really are “online” now and how, in many ways, this may actually be taking away some of our personal freedoms and undermining a sense of any privacy.

Obviously there are some great benefits of what can be, and has been, called the Web 2.0 Internet.  The ability to communicate with others through a vast variety of outlets, many which interact with each other is wonderful.  Information seems to be moving at a faster speed than ever before which I suppose can be argued to promote a greater potential for innovation and discovery.  Much of the work we do on computers, which formerly required installing individual programs, can now be achieved through browsers at any location that has Internet access.  Not to mention the rise of the smart phones which make the Internet and all its tools accessible virtually anywhere on the planet.

So yeah, a lot of good stuff going on.

But the thing is, as any rational person might be able to deduce, is that just as there is a lot of good out there on the web there is also a significant downside.  And I am not just talking about the potential of getting your computer infected with a virus or finding a shit ton of SPAM in your email.  What I am talking about is that, in using a lot of these tools, you are creating a permanent record of yourself out there on the Internet. You are, though the information you provide on your profiles and through status updates, becoming an asset to the whole scheme of moving data.  And as such you risk loosing some of the sanctity which is personal privacy.

I find myself thinking a little bit of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the ever observant presence of Big Brother.  The difference is that it hasn’t taken an oppressive government regime to watch all of us, we offered ourselves out to the vast Web to be observed.  Thus we get individuals who are denied jobs because of a profile picture showing a bit too much fun partying or parties which the cops break up because they read about it on Facebook.  We act shocked at some of this, we may claim that we feel infringed upon, but remember, we are the ones who have allowed a presence.  Sure we might not be able to control every photo of us, and nobody has ever been able to stop others from talking shit behind one’s back, but part of the downside of establishing an online presence is that, in being present, and contributing the content, you are open to be used and abused in a certain number of ways.

Now of course a number of controls have been developed to provide a degree of security.  This is definitely a beneficial thing, but we mustn’t be mistaken into developing a false sense of security.  Even what is assumed to be some of the safest websites occasionally get hacked or loose private information or have other faults and problems arise.  We need to be conscious of what we put out there in that anything we provide has the potential to be accessed by others.

Taking it even further, what about the trusted companies that we interact with on the web?  I don’t want to sound paranoid or like a conspiracy theorist (because I don’t see how that really helps anyone) but what happens if we become so reliant on a company like Google that being restricted in some ways from using their tools could cripple our lives.  Over reliance puts degrees of control and freedom out of our hands.  Does this mean we should use Facebook and Twitter and Google Apps?  No, of course not, but it does suggest being aware of how and why we use them.

So it seems very interesting that there are some movements to take some of life off of the network and just live a bit like people had been doing for a really long time before the Internet revolution.  In a way the people who choose this approach are almost like some kind of resistance fighters who don’t want to be “watched” anymore.  I applaud their choice (while of course sitting here and blogging about them).

Part of my concern (and this is going to sound very cynical and perhaps kind of elitist) is that a lot of people are not very bright and never take the time to consider the risks.  They see something the like or find slightly useful and jump on the metaphorical bandwagon without a thought about the possible consequences.  They use the tools poorly and get into trouble for it.  And when they get hurt or in trouble or so on they run the risk of ruining things for other users who have approached with more caution and awareness.  People are irresponsible and unfortunately it is not always just the irresponsible individuals who end up suffering.

As another point worth briefly mentioning considering the earlier Nineteen Eighty-Four reference, is it just me or is Internet/texting slang kind of like Newspeak?  Just thought I’d point that out.  The Internet and the tools that go along with it can be used in some very valuable ways, but perhaps we should take the time every once and awhile and consider just how dependant we are upon it and how we feel about the potential consequences of that dependence.

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~ by Nathaniel on August 10, 2009.

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