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The Hidden Costs of Life Online*

Posted on: June 4th, 2019 by Hayim Herring No Comments

“There’ll be the breaking of the ancient
Western code
Your private life will suddenly explode
There’ll be phantoms
There’ll be fires on the road…”

(From the lyrics to The Future, Leonard Cohen, Columbia Records 1992)

If you’re using social media and digital services, you’re also being used and abused by them. We’ve cut deals with Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and our favorite online retailers but they’ve taken a disproportionate piece of ourselves. I don’t read their intentionally incomprehensible “terms of service” anymore – do you? They’re written to obstruct my understanding of what I’ve signed on for, and the few existing legal protections to safeguard my privacy are meaningless. I’m especially angry with Apple for buying into their phony concern for privacy at a premium. (I guess the statement, “There will always be a few bad apples” is true!) I’ve traded my trust for online convenience, but at what cost?

If you search for “how to protect your privacy online” you’ll find technical tips on better securing your personal data (of course, data protection firms want to track you, too, so you’ll probably have to click on the prompt “this site uses cookies” to access the information). It’s smart to follow expert advice, but those articles don’t explore some existential questions that I developed in Connecting Generations: Bridging the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial Divide. We’re already “in bed” with these technologies and they’re embedding themselves more deeply and rapidly in us so it’s imperative to keep questioning what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained in this grand digital deal. I invite you to contribute comments and questions.

Three Uncertain Trade-offs

1) Privacy. Decreased privacy diminishes our autonomy and curiosity. Massive data breaches that expose personal information are traumatic, but there are deeper implications. Corporations monitor our clicks and voice-activated commands without our awareness and sometimes without our consent. We’re no longer consumers who purchase services but commodities of corporations. These corporations harvest personal data to manipulate behavior for their benefit. Sure, it’s convenient to have an algorithm suggest a book or movie title based on prior preferences, but what happens to our autonomy and curiosity over time? Do we really need to stay online so long or robotically purchase a “recommended” item?

When companies take my data, they’re also stealing my time and curiosity about ideas that don’t fit my profile. When I’m curious, I meander (read: I decide if I want to spend my time and money and how I make those choices). I’m an adult and I’ve opened my eyes to these trade-offs. But what will happen to children whose digital profiles are created with their first click or voice prompt? Are parents, grandparents, educators, and elders prepared to teach them to navigate corporate traps so that they can develop their unique identities?

2) Social in-app-titude™ or making friends. We’re more nimble with our thumbs but more clumsy with our relationships. I love being able to see family and friends who don’t live nearby on FaceTime, but am I becoming lazy about spending enough face-to-face time with others? A five-minute meeting with a colleague down the hall can prevent a misunderstanding from unsynchronized text messages that lack thought and intended emotion. Emojis help to convey feeling, but only if members of different generational cohorts understand how to use and interpret them. “Yes” to more ways to connect, but the cost is greater social isolation and loneliness beginning at younger ages. And if social connectedness, the glue that gives us purpose, is the most accurate predictor of longevity and good health, the implications of having millions who are “the young and the lonely” are painful and staggering.

3) The Curated Self or the Anxious Self? A Millennial whom I interviewed for Connecting Generations.

1) realized that social media sites were increasing her insecurities. Initially, she enjoyed spending time on Facebook and Instagram but later began to feel that “…it almost hurts a little bit. You look on Facebook and you see, ‘Oh this person’s life is so perfect.’ You look on Instagram and see that they’re [her friends are] traveling and think, ‘Should I be traveling, should I do this when I’m in a relationship?’ And then sometimes I ask myself if I want to travel right now or do I think I want to because so many other people are. So for me [social media sites] make me second guess what is my life like. Am I making the most out of it? Do I have enough hobbies? It [a social media site] pulls on your insecurities wherever they are and it just highlights them” (pages 36-37). Real life isn’t curated and unless a person is guided or acquires a secure sense of self, he or she may be in a frenzied state of endless comparison with peers.

Not long ago, cracking of the genetic code was headline news. We still hear exciting stories about breakthrough genetic therapies, but computer code makes a bigger splash because its effects are immediate and consuming more aspects of our lives. (Did you know that Amazon has developed an algorithm to track warehouse workers’ productivity and fires them by a computer-generated notice if they don’t work quickly enough?  The genetic code is shorthand for our human biology. Computer codes translate our lives into ones and zeros and are making us struggle to hold on to our humanity. I’m not giving up the convenience and access to the world that I can find online, but I want to remain uneasy about being a too-willing partner in giving my “data” away and worse, having it stolen from me by third party. Remembering the trade-offs between convenience and trust will enable me to be more aware of the hidden costs of digital life.

*This is the first post in a series related to my new book, Connecting Generations: Bridging the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial Divide. In this post, I highlight several significant trade-offs that we’ve made by embedding ourselves in 24/7 connected world.


©2019 Hayim Herring
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