John Oswald

Paranoia, fear and the ‘benefits’ of jumping in

What do Manoush Zomorodi, Hugh Greenhalgh and Walter Kirn have in common? Well, they’re all at various points on the spectrum of either totally embracing or totally questioning the data gathering that goes on all around us, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not.

OK, it’s kind of obvious, and we’ve been talking about it for a while, but I just found this particular confluence of articles and opinions over this past week really interesting.

First of all: Walter Kirn’s excellent piece in The Atlantic: If you’re not paranoid, you’re crazy. Pointing out that if we’re not thinking about (and are slightly paranoid about) the consequences of our online data (and by online, think everything — what you say near a phone speaker, your location, you name it…) then you really are crazy… The man has a lot of very valid points.

Then Manoush Zomorodi picking up on this in her excellent podcast Note To Self on WNYC — a humorous but deadly serious weekly podcast on just what it means to be human in the digital age. She interviewed Walter and entitled this week’s piece ‘is my phone eavesdropping on me’.

And Hugh Greenhalgh went a step further in this week’s Financial Times, exploring a bunch of companies creating trading platforms where folks like you and I can simple trade or licence data about ourselves to other companies and get paid (tiny amounts) for it. Very intriguing idea that’s been around for a while (remember Allow, anyone?) but which is now getting more and more mainstream… But still, would you fully trust a company that says, in spite of assurances about data storage:

A copy of everything you said or shared, every photo you posted, every friend you made, all safe in a personalised library on your computer forever. With you can see the whole story of you, one that you own and control. (quoted here) doesn’t actually enable the sale of data, but instead allows the exchange of data for personalised services and offers, and are insistent that they don’t see or store any of your data — they’re the enabler.

So… it’s a spectrum. How much do we trust, how much do we throw ourselves in, how paranoid should we be?

By one perspective, we should perform — curate our online selves, and kind of dance in the spotlight. That’s kind of what most people do on social media anyway — project our best selves, our most aspirational selves.

By another, we should actively ‘atomise’ — never put too much in one place, have areas of our online selves where, if it were to be hacked or lost, wouldn’t damage us too much.

And then by another, we go dark, learn from Tor and just go off grid, or use lots of paranoia software which is probably making us even more nervous than we need to be…

Maybe there’s a lesson from real life somewhere, as Walter Kirn gets to in his article and in Manoush’s podcast — we lead an interior life anyway, so why not replicate that in some way as we construct and present and manage ourselves on the internet? It’d be pretty terrible if the person sat next to us actually knew what we were thinking, and our internal thoughts are often what make us most human.

One day, I really want to see a nice, clear, simple explanation of just what happens to our data (the link from Wired’s lovely infoporn column is a start). It’s the real story here that we’re only just guessing about….

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John Oswald

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