In today’s connected world, we’re heading deeper into total interaction with machines. We’re nearly at the point of being always on the grid, our digital twin marching happily to the rhythms of the information age while we try to go about our meaty business.
Are we being asked to bid farewell to our former selves and give up any sense of independence from the Borg? For decades, I’ve pondered the question of whether there was a way to take the good from tech and leave the rest behind. I’ve yet to come coming up with an entirely satisfactory answer. It seems a slippery slope, something on the order of acceptance by Native Americans of alcohol offered by English settlers. Take a bit of tech and the rest comes after you.
Think of your representation as a digital object, a twin, in the parlance of the industry, a digital twin.
You start off with Name, Rank, and Serial Number, but pretty soon a digital record begins to form, acquiring more and more interesting things about you — like age, address(es), language, education, employment history, photos taken and viewed, heart rate, group memberships, steps walked, Web pages viewed, GPS coordinates, items purchased, searches made, criminal record, service subscriptions, phone call log, loan history, financial status, legal entanglement, last knitting pattern used. All those electronic elements, depictions of you in text and pixels — by sequence, time, and location — they stick to you, out there in meat space.
Social network entanglement does nothing but add detail to the already vivid version of you that constitutes your digital twin. Insta, Faceboook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Reddit, Quora, Pinterest, TikTok, Weibo, Tencent, Line, Naver, Orkut, VKontakte — all keep track of what you did there.
And search engines, I’m looking at you, Google, for sure, but also Apple, via its exclusive platform, and Amazon, for shopping.
Their bots are watching all the dirty little digital footprints you’ve been leaving everywhere all over the Web.
Meet your overlords.
Once the bits are out there, they potentially always will be.
In the first eCommerce biz, where I worked in the 1970s as a teenager, we archived the day’s transactions every night in something called “post-processing.” We emptied the mainframes’ working disks of all the current information, readying them for the next day, and put everything on magnetic tapes, which were duplicated and stored separately in a cool, locked location. We were legally obliged to keep the transactions, as they represented Wall Street trading data, and the Securities Exchange Commission might take an interest in any record at any time.
When we were looking to extend the trading network to other industries, the marketing team came up with the oil business. They trade stuff. It’s not as easy to describe as stocks (e.g., Buy 1,000 IBM), but it can be done, with tonnage, sulfur content, specific gravity, port of origin, and so on, ultimately describing the goods well enough to trade them at a distance electronically. In fact, I headed that effort, spending a lot of time in both New York and Houston.
For months and months, we kept getting meetings with the off-Broadway crowd, the regional suppliers with not much to lose and a lot to gain, but the Bigs, at the time, four, Exxon, Mobile, Texaco, and Chevron, wouldn’t give us the time of day. After a few lunches at fancy restaurants, finally, we got the critical meeting in New York in the Exxon building with the other three in attendance. By that time, they knew what we were proposing, and had a few questions.
“Do you keep the data?” one of the vice presidents assigned to the project asked. No, of course not, I assured him, because by now, I understood enough about oil trading to know that participants did not want their activities tracked. Whether it was because they were colluding, which the federal government suspected at the time, or merely a matter of guarding competitive intelligence, the big oil companies, which fed the complex trading ecology, valued privacy to an extreme degree.
I got word from my contact that the Bigs would refrain for using our electronic system for petroleum trading, effectively killing the project. In a postscript, years later, the industry did finally adopt its own trading network.
But the oil men’s instincts were correct. They didn’t understand computers yet, but they intuited that electronics would shadow their actual moves in meat space, and it mattered who controlled the computers, incipient wisdom that’s all but forgotten now, despite its never being truer.
I won’t leave you without a few thoughts on a solution, which, though imperfect, perhaps represents the doable in this world of ours.
Spread the joy. Mix up your providers, so that even though you belong to the oligopoly, no one entity has a broad view of you. You’re not a moth on a particular someone’s pin. For example, Google Nest seems aggressive to me, offering to “run your home without lifting a finger” so it can analyze your voice data. When I bought a WiFi-connected Honeywell unit, I chose it not because Honeywell won’t try to make use of my data, but because it’s beyond Google’s direct reach. I do use Google elsewhere.
Don’t give your heart away to any one love. None of them is true. Apple fans can stamp their feet. And Google die hards will never quit. But you’re better off spreading things around evenly. A little Microsoft here. A bit of Amazon there. Some Apple on the side. Google turned on and off manually. You preserve some independence.
Do without. I know, I know, technology is supposed to solve everything, but here’s an example: writing manual checks. It would be very easy today to manage an entire life in digital space, using a phone for everything. You’d never have to write. Which I would find too bad, because I enjoy the physical act of writing, doing manual sums in the record and filling out and signing the check. Writing as an artisanal act. Also, you get this old fashioned thing we used to care about called “the float,” which lets you borrow a few days’ time on the bank. And it creates an air gap, always useful when architecting intrusion deterrents.
Yes, once those bits are captured, they’re out there forever — in a manner of speaking. That perfect string, that one number, can be replicated infinitely. It exists in digital space. However, one should not assume that our electronics-based infrastructure will be here for all eternity. At times, it seems rather fragile.
Be that as it may, for the immediate eternity that we’re dealing with right here at the moment, once an impression is released to the wild, it exists independent of its genesis. Data archiving has been going on since the dawn. May you preserve your independence.