New Year’s Eve, for the first time, I had an alarming moment when I realized spaceships really were watching me through the ceiling. They knew where I was in the house. I was troubled by it and said so to my friend, but by midnight I forgot, and felt much better.
Rewind a week or two. I was taking adorable pictures of my toddler nephew typing on his grandmother’s iPad, when I had one of those bewildering, revelatory moments.
I realized I was photographing a member of the first generation that will be able to revisit its entire life in sparkling, high resolution. Between me, his parents and his grandmother, there are easily more photos of him than there have been days in his life.
His brother is six months now. In 2081, when they’re both old men, they’ll be able to access their childhood in extraordinary detail. They’ll see their first Christmases, their first bike rides, their graduations and wedding days all in high resolution images and HD video, and it might seem strange to them that previous generations did not have much access at all to their pasts, aside from memories and a few grainy photographs.
Contrast that with my father, (1947-2008) of whom I’ve only seen one or two pictures of as a child. In those pictures he’s someone I don’t know. He has a smooth sepia face that could belong to just about anyone except my dad. He wore a moustache from the day I was born to the day he died and I couldn’t recognize my father in any other face.
The kids born after about 2007 constitute the first generation that’s younger than Facebook. Today, it’s fairly normal for human beings make their first appearance on the internet when they are less than a week old. Think of how many newborn photos you’ve seen posted by your Facebook friends this last year.
The generation growing up now will be the first one for whom the internet has always been around. For them there will have always been a virtual world of data that follows and documents everyone and everything they know about. Every person they know has an online profile, every object they own or place they visit has a wikipedia article.
They will take for granted that everyone they know has information about them — photos, dates, quotes and other data — floating around in the ether, accessible from anywhere, and virtually indestructible.
I’m still getting used to the idea. I have an app on my phone that lets you take a photograph of something, and it will tell you what it knows about it if it recognizes it. It works about 80% of the time. I can take a picture of a book and it will return the Amazon page for it or the Wikipedia article for it. I can photograph a business card and it will show me everything Google can find on that person. It can recognize public landmarks, art, photographs, and publications. It can recognize famous people in photos, by scouring Google Images for similar photos. It takes about ten seconds and it’s free.
It’s still fairly experimental, but it’s easy to imagine where this technology will be five or ten years. I’d bet any money that before today’s todders graduate high school, they’ll be able to point their phone at a person walking down the street and find out at least their name and a host of linked information, most of the time. Probably well before that.
This speculative article was big on StumbleUpon four years ago, and at the time it seemed so far away. Now it doesn’t.
When I was a teenager, all internet was dialup. You had to turn it on and off, and it occupied your phone line. Search engines were atrocious, virtually unusable. You couldn’t even find out the score to the Giants/Packers game last night. It probably wasn’t even on the internet at all, and the search engines of the day only had the vaguest ideas what you were on about.
You had to take what you could get, which was never quite what you were after. When you were done poking around at whatever decent websites you could find, you turned it off and went back to real life. Today, online and offline no longer have a clear boundary, and this coming generation won’t really understand that there ever was one.
Anyone born into a high-tech society at this point in the game will be totally, irreversibly accustomed to information served up on command, like my generation was born without it occuring to them that there was a time before TV.
When they’re teenagers they’ll be able to ask their phones “Did Mom smoke weed in college?” and instantly have pictures and third party accounts, if the data is out there somewhere. And there will be lots of data out there somewhere.
I was on Facebook before I ever decided to be on Facebook. Four or five years ago, I was at a pub with some acquaintances and they started talking about Facebook. Being a staunch holdout, I tuned out and waited for a new topic, because I had nothing to do with Facebook and wasn’t interested in it.
Then while I was spacing out, one of the girls poked me in the ribs. “There’s lots of pictures of you on Facebook, you know.”
I did eventually cave, as many of you know, and now there’s more about me online than you could possibly want to know.
There’s really no going back now. Once something’s online, there’s no way to get it off. That’s a 21st century maxim that warrants some pondering:
Once you put it online, it belongs to everyone, forever. Thank you.
The three slippery slopes
I think we sometimes underestimate how much of us is out there, and how easy it is to find.
Whenever someone contacts me for an interview or some other request, if I don’t know who they are I Google them. I search them on Facebook, which almost always yields a picture of them even if they have an unusually tight set of privacy restrictions. If they have any online presence, I can find pages of what they’ve written or said, what online personalities they associate with, and what they’re into.
None of this is done with any sinister intention, I only do it because it’s easy and helps me understand a bit about who I’m dealing with.
If I wanted to get really nosy, I could find out what name they use to comment on blogs, and thereby find out their political positions, what makes them angry, major life events they’ve mentioned, what causes they support, who they vote for, what they believe their personal weaknesses are, names of many of their friends, and of course their age, place of birth, marital status, probably the names of their children, and if they’re especially careless or trusting, their home address.
I could do this all from a park bench, legally, with no exclusive tools or hacker knowledge — all just by examining what they’ve volunteered at one point or another. The only things stopping me are that I have better things to do, and that I’m not a creepy stalker. But not everyone is the same in those two respects.
If that’s not creepy enough, know that we’re only getting more exposed to the online snoop as technology improves and we use it more. Three other information-age realities promise to make us even more accessible to prying minds:
1) Putting data about ourselves into the public sphere is only going to get easier, faster, and less conscious
2) Expectations about how much can and should be found out on the internet are only going to increase
3) Finding any given bit of information is only going to get easier
We’re accelerating toward a society where it’s normal for our lives to be largely public. People who don’t want bits of their history and personality floating in the ether have to go to increasingly greater efforts to stay offline, simply because the internet is becoming more integrated into how we do everything. We use it more, we feed it more personal information, and we expect more information from it, and we think about it less. I only know a few remaining Facebook holdouts. They’re an endangered species.
Spaceships are watching me through the ceiling
I was part of the also-endangered “dumb phone” demographic until New Year’s Eve. While I was testing out the features of my new Android, there were a few moments in which I experienced that peculiar emotion that’s equal parts fascination and horror.
Among other features that are neat enough to be scary, I discovered that I can zoom in on Google Maps to the house I am in, until the house is nothing but a fuzzy brown shape, and watch a tiny blue triangle move back and forth inside that fuzzy shape, as I walk between the dining room and the kitchen.
In a surreal, horrific moment, I realize am the blue triangle, and unmanned spaceships are tracking my every move through the ceiling. Now, I know I can turn off the GPS capability at any time. But while it was on, I was sharing some frighteningly intimate information about myself, and I don’t really know with whom. As time goes on, the shape is only going to get less fuzzy.
We send data out to faceless databases and networks all the time without thinking about it, and anything that is broadcast can potentially be recorded. There are privacy policies and other corporate promises that claim to protect you, but really we’re just constantly throwing information into a giant black box that might as well be labeled, “Stuff I told the internet.”
Amazon knows that you start your Christmas shopping late, that you read left-wing authors, and of course it knows your credit card information and your street address. Google knows you want to learn more about auto-erotic asphyxiation, that you keep replaying My Heart Will Go On on YouTube, and that you probably have irritable bowel syndrome. It’s all circumstantial evidence about who you are, it might not be traceable to your legal name, but it’s all out there and someone’s definitely hanging onto it.
Let’s assume that we can totally trust those big companies with all that. Honestly, at this stage of the game, I do. I think. And it seems like we’re mostly protected from inadvertently becoming too public because what we broadcast is ultimately voluntary.
After all, we choose what we type and what we post. You might reason that you can curate your online self quite carefully, if you can just stay aware of what you’re sharing, and remember the world is listening.
But “voluntary” might be too simplistic a concept here. It’s not always so easy or simple to say no.
For example, I’m sure you’re aware by now that Mark Zuckerberg is imposing his vision on the Facebook world by converting every profile to a Timeline — an automated chronology of all the bits of your life you’ve put online, whether you realized you were doing it or not.
If you don’t want your life so readily chronicled for others, then no problem, right? Because it’s ultimately voluntary.
You just have to delete your Facebook.
Are you going to do that? A few will, and meanwhile the vast majority of us will continue to use it because it’s a big part of life, it has a lot of advantages, and we’re accustomed to them. If it means increased publicness, then I guess we’re game for that.
It’s getting a bit creepy when Facebook remembers more about my life than I do. It can tell me (or any of the other 500 people on my account) what day I became friends with so-and-so, or what was on my mind at 1:31pm April 11th, 2009, even if I have no clue. It seems to know where my photos were taken, even though I’m pretty sure I never told it.
Yet I can’t quite imagine opting out.
Why not? Because there are definitely parts of it I like. I can interact with the like-minded, learn from them, and watch their lives unfold from a polite distance.
So we let ourselves become a little more public, and it keeps us honest and keeps us connected.
But truthfully we have no idea what this tradeoff really amounts to — what liabilities we’re creating by making our details so accessible. If it seems like a fair price to pay, maybe it’s because we haven’t paid it yet.
How do you feel about your life becoming more public? Do you think it’s a healthy trend in general? Do you take steps to keep your information offline?