Discomfort, Trust, and Digital Selves

It’s been awhile. I’ve spent the last four months applying for new jobs, interviewing, getting hired, and moving from the midwest to the bay area. It’s been a long ride (drive, really). I’ve been out here three weeks now, and it still feels strange to call it my new home (new license plates on my car notwithstanding).

I’m a tech writer by trade, as I’ve alluded to/mentioned in the past with my post on Prescriptive Design and the Decline of Manuals, and I’ve so far enjoyed being in an area so tech-focused (though I do worry about the bubble).

Let’s get back into it, shall we?

I read a book called The Antidote on the train last week. It was a good (and timely) reminder that big life changes like moving across the country are good for you. It’s refreshing, and makes you happier, if you can learn to revel in the discomfort of the uncertain.

As he puts it,

It is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.

And an especially salient reminder:

The deep truth about insecurity: it is another word for life. That doesn’t mean it’s not wise to protect yourself, as far as you can, from certain specific dangers. But it does mean that feeling secure and really living life are, in some ultimate sense, opposites.

This sentiment was echoed by Rachel Ward in her essay, I’m Sorry I Didn’t Respond to Your Email, My Husband Coughed to Death Two Years Ago:

being comfortable being uncomfortable is a very effective way to be a human.

These have become comforting words, in a way, as I find my place in a new place.

When it comes to the work I do, Seth Godin has some good advice as well. Self-confidence can be hard to come by at times, so he suggests an alternative to prop yourself up when that’s the case: Do work you can believe in. He continues:

Not trust, verification. Not believing that one day you’ll do worthwhile work. Instead, do worthwhile work, look at it, then believe that you can do it again.

There are times when verification isn’t possible, such as when we trust other companies with our information. Data collection matters because of the trust that you and I place in the devices, apps, and services we use and the websites we visit.

Well, Welcome to the Speakularity, Where Everything You Say Is Transcribed and Searchable. Advances in artificial intelligence and natural language processing  mean that while systems work hard to anticipate your needs and understand you as a user, they are collecting massive amounts of data about you. Massive amounts of data such as everything that you say to it, or around it. (With Apple’s announcements today expected to involve Siri, I’ll probably want to come back and add five more articles to this).

Many people with Amazon Echo devices discovered during an ad that aired during Stephen Colbert’s Late Night debut that their device is always listening.

As the article about the Speakularity insinuates:

Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft are not interested, today, in recording and transcribing everything we say. They are interested in voice as an interface.

In order to get there, though, they might have to record everything that we say (although they aren’t transcribing it, yet). What if, as the article recalls, Matt Thompson’s 2010 forecasted Speakularity came to pass, and “At some point in the near future, automatic speech transcription will become fast, free, and decent”?

As Thompson points out, it would be a boon to journalism. But it would also be a new, and perhaps disturbing addition, to our digital identities which already suffer from a similar type of auto-archiving. That archiving, self-induced to a point, is our online selves.

Social media and other services incentivize data sharing. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, OKCupid—these services are nearly impossible, and rather pointless, to use without sharing personal data. Other sites require data sharing—your bank, your health insurance, your internet service.

What does this mean for you? Well, first of all, you might as well start behaving as though everything you say online is public. As Quinn Norton succinctly puts it, coining “Norton’s Law,”

Over time, all data approaches deleted, or public.

Either your data fades gracefully, gratefully into the ether (see: link rot) or it lives on, forever archived (see: the internet archive). And when it is archived and/or stored somewhere, it can always be found (and thus, always be made public if it isn’t already).

Navneet Alang goes long on the Terror of the Archive for Hazlitt magazine, in the context of the recent Ashley Madison data leak.

the leak has nonetheless forced people to comb back through their pasts and past transgressions. It is an effect of how the web and digitality often collapse the distance between past and present: The archive of who we are in the collection of tweets, status updates, blog posts, and photographs scattered online looms like some peat bog of personality, always about to gurgle up some perfectly preserved act from our personal history.

I wrote about this a bit in terms of the Boston Bombers in A Narrative of Bits and Pieces, but the archive of these moments goes beyond the impression that our online selves give others, and further to disrupt our internal notions of who we are.

The digital archive of the self makes that smoothing effect of time harder to maintain. Those confounded “Memories” or “Flashback” functions in services such as Facebook or Dropbox vomit up images and words from the past at inopportune times—some picture of another ghost to whom you could have been kinder. Meanwhile, Google and Twitter searches dredge up unwanted shards of the self—whether by you or, worse, others with ill intent.

He returns to this concept toward the end of his piece (I’m excerpting a lot here, but I promise, there are so many more good bits like this):

Freud said that we endlessly repeat past hurts, forever re-enacting the same patterns in a futile attempt to patch the un-healable wound. This, more than anything, is the terror of the personal, digital archive: not that it reveals some awful act from the past, some old self that no longer stands for us, but that it reminds us that who we are is in fact a repetition, a cycle, a circular relation of multiple selves to multiple injuries. It’s the self as a bundle of trauma, forever acting out the same tropes in the hopes that we might one day change.

In a nutshell,

To be a digital human is to be many, and in more than one place at once. Am I a good person? Depends on where on the timeless web of self you stand in order to look and judge.

When it comes to memory, our offline self creates our own truth and self-narrative, but the digital archives, well, they don’t forget. Who we are online (forever) isn’t the same person as we think we are offline (now).

That distinction isn’t easily drawn, even in a time of histrionic digital dualism. “Digital dualists believe that the digital world is “virtual” and the physical world “real,” but in this case, the digital world might just be more “real” than the physical world. But it’s important to remember (and easy to forget) that the digital world isn’t the whole story, something that people like Justine Sacco know all too well. Our digital selves aren’t our whole selves, but they are preserved far longer.

So what can be done, with all this data roaming around about us on the web, and on company’s servers? A few things come to mind.

  • Companies need to get stronger on cybersecurity in a smart way. There is a new cybersecurity mantra, as brought to light by Richard Bejtlich: “If you can’t protect it, don’t collect it.” The less data a company collects about its users, the less data that can be hacked and stolen.

  • Websites and apps need to seriously curtail their “experience-enhancing” privacy intrusions used to “personalize” your experience by collecting massive amounts of data when you visit a site or use an app. Reducing the amount of analytics and data tracking that these sites and apps perform will not only speed them up (thus actually improving the user experience), it will be a boon to privacy and security as well.

  • And of course, only share information with Norton’s Law in mind: “Over time, all data approaches deleted, or public.”

Your music recommendation this time around is RAC, with the song Can’t Forget You (ft. Chelsea Lankes). Unintentionally fitting the discussion of digital archives and the permanence of your personal data online.

Thanks are due as well to Audrey Watters’ newsletter, for linking to Quinn Norton’s and Navneet Alang’s pieces, and to Assaf Arkin’s newsletter for sharing the “don’t collect if you can’t protect” piece.