Let’s say you and some other smartphone owners have happened upon the topic of sanitary napkins. Sure, a niche topic, but we often happen unexpectedly on conversations about improving our daily tools: Tools are our species’s super powers. Anyway, someone in the group has found a new tissue brand that just owns, trounces over all the other brands of sanitary napkins, even that one brand, and lowers all of their standing to a lesser level of nostril comfort. This new brand just feels like a comfy disposable blanket for the face. Needless to say, mental notes are being for future shopping lists.
The phenomenon occurs the next time you pick up your phone, perhaps to check your social media of choice. You’ll find it not far into your feed: an advertisement for sanitary napkins. Possibly even the brand you were talking about.
You look up from the screen, and if you are still within the same group of people, you say, “I know I’m not crazy, but….”
Everyone else nods in understanding. Some really do believe that their phone is surreptitiously listening to our conversations. Some do not. If you morbidly think that if the next advertisement you see is for a security system, you think, there will need to be a reckoning.
Our Evolving Relationship to Privacy
Despite our staunchly traditional and foundational American beliefs, our collective vexations concerning privacy are varied. Here, now, in smartphone land, we have let in the spies: social media networks, search engines, retailers, employers, parents, and governments.
Recently, I listened to an episode of historian and author Jill Lepore’s podcast, The Last Archive, that examines this evolving transition from seclusion and abject privacy to our current state. The episode, entitled “The Invisible Lady,” helped me think about the redefinition of invisibility in our society.
There is this anecdote about the results of a 1928 Supreme Court ruling concerning the legality of government wiretapping. Was government wiretapping a breach of constitutionally protected privacy? According to the majority, it was not. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Louis Brandeis argued that allowing the government to wiretap houses under the auspice that the “wire” was not the owner’s private property would allow the government to invade more privacy with every new piece of technology. Justice Brandeis argued that someone’s voice was their own, even if it was on another company’s wire system.
Here is Lepore’s point: “Brandeis was trying to warn that the government, if it wanted evidence against you, could one day pretty much just wiretap your brain. Except, that’s not really what happened. We decided, instead, to wiretap our own brains.”
And so we did.
If we look back in time at our old lines of communication, we remember how stranded we were. It didn’t feel like it at the time, of course. And if we imagine the circumstances before our time, when there perhaps just a mailbox (if that), a door, and some windows, the first threads to the outside world, it’s such a stark juxtaposition of the world we live in now. The threads have multiplied to where even our speaker systems are a bridge to the outside world, filling various company databases with our—albeit anonymous, we hope—memories, choices, musings, etc.
How did America, a nation of prideful privacy anecdotes, myths (I mean, part of the American Dream is to have a “white picket fence”!), histories, and laws, open our proverbial doors to unknown visitors, spies, and ne’er-do-wells without a lot of kicking and screaming?
Well, there was kicking and screaming. But we didn’t notice it because it was largely muffled by our fascination for the technological doo-dads of this age.
And, really, those doo-dads are pretty awesome. That’s why any call for getting rid of them and going back to a more private sort of living usually fails. Think of how many lives we’ve saved or made better with these dads of do—and here I’m including the internet in the doo-dad classification. I certainly can’t think of going through SARS-CoV-2 lockdown without our current communication capabilities. Not to mention our advancements in the medical field.
Still, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider the phenomenon of a nation founded on pretty strict privacy rights to suddenly not worry.
Think of it this way: We are a nation of alcohol drinkers, chocolate eaters, speed limit breakers, and gun toters. It is more in our nature to be benefit-oriented and negativity blind. Our culture strongly includes the “Everybody Else Is Doing It” dictum.
But that negative side, the alcoholism, the high cholesterol, the unnecessary car crashes, the deaths, it’s bad. Think of our cigarettes smokers, which there is still an entire industry for. You don’t die of cancer at first puff, but the realization slowly seeps in through the years, the small signs that cigarettes are getting you pretty good. Along with that is the realization that you’ve just gone along with things despite your best interest. Smokers are not alone in rising above such smoke.
Think of a car crash. One may attribute it to one incident, but is is that or the statistics of habits, going over the speed limit, feeling safer to make rasher decisions as the years go by, feeling one has to pass someone if they are going slow even if you must go over the speed limit, etc. Long term thinking, as well as empathizing with the arc of a problem, as well as understanding the context of a problem, are all things us humans are not so good at.
The Muffled Kicking and Screaming
We are constantly overlooking scopes of reality, even with things we think we are using freewill to choose. At times, we almost eagerly let manipulations slip under our consciousness, possibly due to naïveté, ignorance, or our inability to process multiple things at once. Nonetheless, we are proud choice-makers.
We are used to not knowing scopes of reality, to deal with ignorance in our daily lives. For instance, we often wow ourselves with musing over the crazy amount of cooking experiments our ancestors plodded through to create things we now take for granted. Who was the first one to grind down wheat into a flour and then do all of the things that create a loaf of bread? And who figured out that wheat was a plant worth investing time and energy into in the first place? We can’t imagine such scopes of experimentation, let alone the happy accidents that dwell in the garage of any inventor, or the various eras of human living—the various environments and cultures that are responsible for the creation of something as simple as a loaf of bread. And then just the time span of it all. We accept, perhaps ponder for a moment, and then move on.
Meanwhile, in the store, pleasing wording like “healthy” and “organic” can manipulate us into thinking a bread with a lot of corn syrup in it is a healthy bread. Even if we have been steeped in advertising culture, which all Americans are, we are regularly duped.
It’s normal for us to buy smartphones, computers, laptops, security cameras, smart-speakers, and smartwatches and really think nothing of it. It’s normal for us to reap the benefits of the hyper-communication culture that is happening around us and pish-posh the security of the invisible avenues laid between our fingers, voices, faces, not to mention our precious interiors, our emotional guts. Even in our evaluating stage of all of this, we wouldn’t have it any other way; I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When the pandemic made our technological avenues of communication insanely more powerful and important, pushing us away from our screens for sustenance in our hyper-screen-filled world, it made it easier to think of the costs of all this. And I’m called to that almost pedantic and cliché Socrates quote: “Know thyself.”
The saying is a starting point. Know what your fears make you do, know the things you easily believe, know your addictive nature, know how you are inclined to spend your time.
And like our opaque inventions that we know not the specifics, we must ask the pertinent questions: how is my realm of ignorance affecting my interaction with these things? What is at stake here? Who is benefiting and why? And how?
They know where we are going with GPS data. They know what we text to others. They know what we buy or want to buy or dream of buying. They know who we call. And they know where we are when we do these things.
They know what interests us, what we search for. They know what games we like to play, what entertains us and for how long. They know when we get bored. They know what buttons we prefer over others. They know how long we spend on web pages.
In many cases, we store our secrets and private information on their property.
Before all of this, companies had billboards and storefront signs and word of mouth. They could scrutinize the crowds or the lack of crowds or the middling almost-crowd, but only if they were in a store.
Back in my retail days, 14 years ago, I remember the wonder I gave store trackers: monitors at the entrances of stores that counted how many people walked in and out. These numbers were used to compare a litany of things, some of them very stress-inducing. Even though we had mouse clicks back then, I never imagined what that sort of data could bring or even what kind of data was coming, right there, on my computer screen.
And despite such utter trying with the advent of newer and newer data collecting technology and psychologically informed design, word of mouth is still the most powerful form of advertisement. Anecdotes from those we know, even marginally intimate they may be, fill most of our bucket of influence.
Thus it is the small part of the pie that is fought over. This is where the action and the resources are. It’s very specific stuff, meant to idealistically topple word of mouth, however futilely.
Capitalism and Clicks
Sometimes we leave the news out of capitalism. But like anything non-state-sponsored, news organizations need to make money to survive. And, like any company, it is how they make money that matters.
Back in the day, the news only had its advertisers and its subscription models for capital. A billboard can be a blight upon the landscape, but the technology that money-making websites use, news sites being a type of them, is able to ascertain different consumer/audience data-points by using tools that track a litany of things such as scrolling, link-clicking, time spent on a page, etc.
Perhaps it’s because we want to hold this part of life—our relation to information and how we see the world, even how we vote—in high esteem that we assume by dint of their raison d’être that news organizations should be on their best behavior, even on the internet.
Some news companies play off of our psychological predispositions for novelty: creating headlines that attract our attention. More viewership, even if only on a quiz or an opinionated hot-take, makes money.
Others tap into our sense of identity: aligning themselves, overtly or covertly, with a political party or maybe something more innocuous like a source for fashion enthusiasts. This provides a known audience, one to pander to, one to keep not because of information but because of the perspective. One goes there to see what the team is thinking.
And yet others tap into our sense of efficiency for many of us seek out news that is first and foremost easy to imbibe. Hence news and social media, a sort of word-of-mouth mirage. And sometimes what our friends know or are reading is more important to us than objective scrutiny. The whole story is not as important as the bullet points.
The last are those that sell news because good news is important for the world. This model is harder and less tempting to financially enact. It takes time to investigate, to interview, to follow-up, to fact-check. Far easier to not go as deep and then to pivot for the sake of novelty, identity, or efficiency.
And sometimes our sources don’t mix well. Someone getting their news from a news site that spends a lot of resources getting something right may challenge the facts of a news source that trucks in identity news. One would think logic would win here, but it does not. Our identities are far too powerful for that.
We like to be affirmed for our curiosity, identity, practicality, and openness. And despite what drives us or our news, we like to be right no matter what we choose.
This might be fine with some in-built humility, but internet news is capable of this wrap-around coziness that can be quite lethal to the world of ideas. One cannot debate the merits of a society or even debate ideas if the facts are in dispute.
It seems like with any new change of the outside world, changes in our inside world are warranted.
When we made it easier to eat food, when we started growing it and storing it, we had to not eat like the maniacs we were when we hunted and gathered—sometimes not knowing when our next meal was. Our bodies are attracted to sugar and fat because that’s how evolution got us to this point, to be manically focused on getting that fancy brain electrified. Now, we have to ignore our own body’s survival makeup to live in modern society in a healthy way.
When we started driving cars around, we needed to ensure that we didn’t forget that just having a car doesn’t mean that this is the end of our monetary involvement with that car. Or responsibility. Also that just because we could drive for longer distances, didn’t mean that we could do so at any speed. We’d have to think about others on the road. We’d have to be vigilant to a whole litany of variables that test our focus, especially at high speeds.
When we created office buildings, we needed to wonder at the downsides of everyone working in the same building. Our recent arguments about the value of open-office floor plans are testament to idealism confronting reality.
When you have something as powerful as a smartphone connected to the internet in your pocket, on your person at all times, there has to be a grappling with the interiority of that exteriority.
You can read Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows and think about what psychological impacts the internet in its generalness has on people: What are the consequences of living more and more on the web? What are the consequences of having the web in our pockets?
And then we must go deeper than that.
But the laugh is this: we can’t be bothered to read the Terms of Service documents or know where to look or to understand the underlying layers of technicality that sources our data from various software and devices. Such knowledge requires expertise—or in the case of the Terms of Service, massive amounts of time and patience and legal vocabulary knowledge—and for that, baring word of mouth from an expert, we need to consult those who are in on the game.
But it’s important. When we see headlines that make us fear for our politics, our safety where we live, our safety with what we eat, we need to figure out our relation to that information and its source.
When crime is reported, it is hard not to feel a little less safe, despite the statistics—the fact that we are primed to take any scary news in a localistic way. No news organization puts such things in perspective for us. We must do that ourselves. And could you imagine the constant disclaimers if they did?
When we pick up our devices, it’s the same. There is no context. Perhaps Netflix prompts its addictive nature by asking us if we still want to watch the next episode, and Apple shows us how many times we’ve picked up our phone, but these are cases are few.
Popular apps like Clash of Clans and Hay Day make their money through our relationship with impatience. Both games are free to play, but upgrades and certain processes cost time, and if you are not aware of your relationship to patience in games, you could spend money that you wouldn’t normally spend.
And that’s as simple as one can get.
Who would have known that our relationship to chance, to gambling, would play a role in swiping down on a Twitter feed to see what’s next?
If we don’t triage our news sources, know where to look and how to keep an open mind about new information, those who study the way we work more than our own selves will always get the better of us. Just like pickpockets who operate when our attention is filled with the crowd, with the day-to-day. Just like magicians who manipulate our attention by redirecting it. Just like a deft parent who changes the subject to avoid an unsatisfactory answer to a question from a sponge-like child.
In the Pocket of a Human
It is hard not to think of one’s self as an alarmist here.
It’s the same with SARS-CoV-2. We see the percentage of survivors or the number of people who have pre-existing conditions succumbing to the virus, and our brains somehow do this flip that tells us that things maybe aren’t so bad. And then we read an anecdote or a statistics and flip back, only to flip again.
Each time, we feel like our ability to understand the truth is eroded or perhaps strengthened. And here the phenomenon is complex: scientists battling it out for the truth, websites trying to get things out for clicks, news stations trying to get things out to save lives, a litany of different pushes and pulls. Now, more than ever before, residing in our pockets.
If we look at the current state of the country, the tribalism, the arguments about the news, the closeness in ideas but the disagreement on those chosen to lead, there are forces lurking underneath. The old ones and the new ones.
But, really, what’s more old than the human call to be on “our” side, to join our group. We would never think peer pressure could be so powerful. It’s the power of playgrounds. But it’s our oldest weakness, and it resides on our new devices.