In the 1990s, people took great pleasure in mocking Al Gore for “inventing the Internet.” Al never claimed that distinction, of course, but facts never get in the way of urban legend, or any particular personal narrative, for that matter. What Vice President Gore did do was to jump start the widespread use of the Internet, some may say to our peril. The very fact that we’ve deferred to capitalize “Internet” should give us some pause as to its influence.
There can be no doubt that the Internet has put virtually infinite resources at our fingertips. I wonder how many books these days have not used the Internet in required research instead of the Dewey Decimal System. Guilty. The caution, of course, is that, along with factual information a click away, there is a bottomless cauldron of misinformation, conspiracy theories, disinformation and outright fantasy (by the way, why do people continue to post proof that the earth is not flat?). A discerning mind may take the effort to sort all that out, but there is always that underlying – one hopes it’s “underlying”— desire to validate one’s personal narrative and beliefs. It’s rather like seeking out a doctor who will tell you what you want to hear, like, “Smoking won’t kill you. Cigarette?” Or, “You don’t need vitamins. You get all the nutrition you need in your diet. Fries with that cheeseburger?” Or, “Climate change is an elaborate hoax. Quit whining and buy this Hummer.” Stuff like that. The point is, the Internet is a tool without a road map for ethics, morality or truth. We still have to navigate through the noise to get to the brass ring of truth and fact. You’ll no doubt see that “personal responsibility” theme echoed throughout.
Over just a moment in time, the Internet went from a curiosity to the undisputed core of “private” and commercial communication. “Private” is in quotes because, of course, nothing that leaves your computer, or even potentially what remains on your computer, is private. In my days as a manager – spanning the phone/fax to digital age – I have a hard time remembering, somewhat wistfully, what it was like to not have email. Of course, I have a hard time remembering what happened last week. But I digress. One thing that became clear to anyone paying attention was that “email is forever.” So read a note that was written on a sign in my office, and it was a sentiment I continuously impressed upon my team. One doesn’t have to look far to see how not heeding this reality has caused everything from embarrassment to global crisis. And as if communication through email wasn’t fraught with enough peril, I give you “Tweets.” Now one can sink a relationship, a career or a country in 280 characters. Now that’s efficiency.
Email and its cousin Tweet can be used responsibly, of course, evidence to the contrary. If one were to actually read the email as if the recipient, for example, one might catch grammatical errors, unintended hostility, insensitivity or catastrophic numerical errors. Or try the phone. Local and long-distance calls are pretty cheap these days. Rereading, thinking and considering the consequences of un-nuanced communication before hitting “Send” can save a lot of stress.
The Internet has become the tool of choice for personal banking as well as global movement of money. Paying bills with a check and a stamp is a quaint memory. Transactions are virtually instantaneous, which is way faster than the Pony Express. The Internet is used for everything from keeping kids quiet for five minutes prior to dinner, to keeping central power plants and airports running. Given the regular news of hacking episodes, this should give us great pause. It’s getting really difficult these days to separate apocalyptic TV dramas from the evening news. (I’ll avoid the topic of trying to keep ahead of “Breaking News” with increasingly more bizarre story lines.) Ransomware, a particularly ominous player in cyber-world, indiscriminately attacks users from individuals to hospitals to power grids.
How do you avoid losing your identity, or having your bank account wiped out or being the victim of any of a host of privacy breaches? Truth is, if you’re connected, you’re vulnerable. Most of us won’t have that much to worry about if we do the basics. Use a password that isn’t “1-2-3-4,” allow updates, use a good virus protection software and, for god sake, don’t click on that link from Happy Rich Guy who has promised to make you rich. After all that, if hackers want in, they’ll get in, just like burglars. Luckily for most of us, we aren’t interesting enough to get their attention. Just don’t run for office. Unless you are an intelligent, fair-minded and compassionate human who sees public service as a critical need (which it is) and you have faith in scientific method. In that case, God knows we need you to run.
The influence of social media has taken center stage lately, which is remarkable, given the fire hose of “unprecedented” revelations and antics of the current White House that make us numb. Mark Zuckerberg and various other social media entrepreneurs have had conversations with America via a Congressional panel made up of at least a few members clearly living in some past decade. The interest in the political realm has to do with the ease at which smart kids can manipulate “reality” to fit each of our world views. Weaponizing this talent is now threatening to undermine the foundation of democracies worldwide.
What this all seems to come down to is that marketing has “improved” in the modern world, and has taken on an even more sinister cloak with social media. Algorithms take thousands of bits of seemingly benign information and develop a profile that allows very tactical application of whatever it is the manipulators want to sell. It doesn’t have to be based in any semblance of fact, as long as it validates the cultural narrative that defines us. Because, in spite of practical, scientific or moral choices to the contrary, we will cling to our own world view and absorb whatever external input that supports it. The responsibility for what information gets processed and what gets trashed is – as with, I dare say, all technology – with us. The humans. At least, so far. It calls us to be ever vigilant, and to “question authority” in the most personal sense; that is, question your very own world view.