Sunday, June 23, 2013

Because we can.

In the midst of the 2012 campaign Mitt Romney was having a car elevator installed in his California beachfront house.  Four years earlier, John Edwards held himself out as the voice of the poor while building North Carolina's most expensive private residence.  Neither candidate seems to have understood the message they were conveying about themselves or how out of touch they were with the vast majority of American voters, regardless of party.  Mitt Romney and John Edwards are both (though not equally) wealthy.  Politicians are not known for speaking with unfettered candor and with good reason.  Remember what trouble Mitt brought upon himself with his 47% remark.  Let's assume for a moment that they saw us like Romney saw his peers in Boca Raton and we asked them why they were lavishing themselves with such excess?  "We're doing it", they might answer (and accurately so), "because we can".

These one-percenters may seem remote from us and their "because we can" response especially so — but not so fast.  In truth, there is much that happens today in what both our government and we do that derives from "because we can".  Perhaps we don't own over-the-top (much less multiple) dwellings but technology, for example, has freed us up to do many things that would have unthinkable in an earlier time.  In many cases, and regardless of age or circumstance, we do them just because we can.  Surveillance and spying is nothing new but technology has changed the ball game dramatically and, with the recent focus on what the government is doing, we fear that they are being far more invasive than necessary, just because they can. 

You may agree or not with my assessment of Edward Snowden as more hero than traitor.  The government has charged him with violating the Espionage Act for exposing the PRISM program.  He's on the move as I write this and who knows how that will play out, or how we'll feel the more we know about him.  What concerns me now is not so much Snowden but — and on this we can probably agree — that we finally engage in a serious public conversation about the degree to which our privacy should be invaded to maintain our security.  Among other issues we need to sort out is what safety risks we are willing to endure in the name of preserving our privacy (assuming that's possible in the digital age).  We should understand that even if we are willing to give up a considerable degree of privacy there is no guarantee that bad things won't happen.  No security program is fail-safe.  We are told than many plots were prevented by PRISM, but the Boston bombing did happen on the program's watch.  Its alleged perpetrators somehow evaded this intrusive surveillance.

What I'm suggesting in this post is a much broader conversation, one that drills down way beyond matters of national security into our personal lives.   It's hard to walk a street today or to be in an enclosed place whether our home, a grocery store or a museum without seeing someone, often many someone’s, tapping away on their smart phones either texting or searching the web.  The Internet has made it possible to do considerable research without ever setting foot in a library.   Books can be ordered, or increasingly downloaded, without visiting a bricks and mortar bookseller.  I so rarely write them that when a leasing company wanted me to provide a canceled check to verify a request to join their automatic payment program there was none to provide.  By the way, the bank no longer returns any cancelled checks, so even the two or three I write annually is of no use in that regard.  Countless people now have Facebook pages where they can share a running narrative of their every movement or thought.  Through Twitter accounts they can engage in endless "conversation" and share their opinions on any subject of their choosing. You will likely have hundreds of examples like these, things you or others do because we can.

This blog is posted on the Internet.  Anyone, in most parts of the world, can access it at will.  It is a public expression and, like many other bloggers, I am voicing opinions, some of them controversial.  I try very hard not to misstate facts and to attribute quotes properly, often backing them up with reference links.  But I could do the opposite.  I am free to write at will and to express whatever thoughts I may have — free to do so because I can.  The question I always ask myself, and why more of my blogs are stillborn in my computer than uploaded, is if I should?  In my case, that's often because of a personally set discipline to write only when I (hopefully) have something to add to the conversation.  But the point is, "if I should", is always top of mind.

Most of us, myself included, are not always or consistently asking that question.  Some of us don't ask it at all.  We've become accustomed to doing a cursory search for say a lighting fixture on Google and suddenly finding ads for such fixtures on a sidebar at Huff Post.  It's accepted that a similar search on Amazon is likely to be followed by "targeted" emails in our inbox.  We just accept this as the way of our world.  We accept and largely ignore this "way" rather than thinking of it in terms of privacy invaded.  Searching on line, we accept, is different than browsing unnoticed at Home Deport, Macy's or Barnes & Noble.  Know your customer, a long established maxim of good retailing, has come to mean something very different, a customized service follow-up, yes, but a far more invasive one.

So when the government invades our privacy it is one that has already been compromised, a self-inflicted compromise at that.  GPS tells us where to go, but it also lets others know where we are.  Just watch an episode of NCIS or CSI and you'll know exactly what I mean.  This is not to suggest that we throw our mobile phones into the recycling bin, but that we recognize and more importantly remain constantly aware of their privacy robbing attributes.  Just because we can doesn't always mean we should.  Needless to say, this is far easier said than done.  Beyond all else, we are not fully in control, not by a long shot.

Understanding that, we must also recognize that what's required of us is not only restraining ourselves from thoughtlessly doing what we can, but also considering what constraints should be imposed on others.  Others doesn't only mean the government about which such a fuss is now rightly being made, but the many eyes and ears the step across our personal line every day.  It's good that Amazon remembers what vitamin tablets I use and what water filter is required in my refrigerator, but should it have the right to turn my every search into a sales pitch?  The answer may be that I don't care or that these reminders may be useful enough in the aggregate that I am willing to ignore the useless and not consider it overly invasive.  Should we ask the government to intervene and compel them to give us a choice or should we ask them to do so or to stop, hoping that other voices will add weight to our request?  Personally I prefer the second option because bringing the government in here has potentially unintended consequences.

Arresting the government's intrusion into our privacy is of course something else entirely.  Absent political/citizen action and legislative restraint, the NSA is unlikely to alter its surveillance programs.  In this case, the government is the vendor and we are the customers/stakeholders.  We haven't the power to get them to change their approach without getting others to join in.  PRISM is a call for public discussion and hopefully for mitigating action.

In the end, disciplining ourselves with regard to "just because I can" requires a different and more aware mindset.  It demands that we ask, "do I really want to do or say that" and, more to the point, in that particular medium.   How much do I want to share on Facebook and what pictures do I want to send out from my iPhone (or at times even take)?  In our time there is so much that we can just do and every reason to embrace the empowerment of that ability.  But it seems to me it's time to build the "should we" question into our everyday lives.  For sure some people have imposed a should on their young children, but in the long run imposing one upon ourselves will prove far more important and necessary.
My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.

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