The Digital Age

February 22, 2018

I think most of us are aware of the tremendous impact the digital age has had on our daily lives. The digital technology and sharing of data has brought us many benefits. Things that were once considered impossible now have become routine. We can reach family members and friends immediately by calling them on their mobile phone. We can capture and share high-resolution images in an instant. The experiences of family and friends are available in real time through video, and we have access to an incredible inventory of movies, sports programs, and documentaries.

 

However, with any technological advance, negative aspects can surface. We now find our lives are intruded upon more than ever before. Cloud data storage sites contain details of our lives that limit our privacy and anonymity. Every time we provide details of our lives such as our age, address, telephone number, interests, hobbies, vacation spots, purchases, likes, dislikes, favorite books, pictures, friends, etc. we add to the digital profiles that define us. If we post our activities and locations during the course of the day on Facebook, we have now provided real-time details about our lives. As computers become faster and ever more sophisticated, I envision a time when someone will be selling our life stories to advertisers and perhaps others as well. They will provide a level of detail that even our family members and closest friends don’t know.

 

At some point, we will discover that there are absolutely no secrets because what we have said and done has been recorded by someone and is now part of that digital profile. Conversations can be overheard and recorded from a distance, and videos of things we did that we would rather forget may have been captured by someone without our knowledge. And recordings of our telephone calls, as well as all searches we have ever done on a computer, are now in digital form and could potentially become part of our profiles. My understanding is that Google has retained every search we have ever done. They are legal safeguards for certain information, but this has never stopped the unscrupulous.

 

Greater London has an estimated 500,000 CCTV surveillance cameras. I doubt that we can go anywhere without being captured on camera multiple times. We may think we have anonymity in a large city like London, but with image recognition software and ever-faster computers, it would be possible for someone to submit a query that shows all of our outside activity during a specified period. And, of course, stores, gas stations, banks, restaurants, and others have private surveillance cameras as well, which may not be included in the half a million number.

 

Recently, we have all become aware of fake news. This problem points out a serious issue with the Internet and some of the large social networking companies. The development of the Internet has given us an incredible sense of freedom. People who didn’t have a voice before can now easily make themselves heard. They can enter chat rooms, post to sites, and create their own blogs and express their views. They can also create news that isn’t real news. Democracy and an open Internet give us freedom to express ourselves like never before, but not all expression is constructive. Some is misleading or downright dangerous. We value free speech in this country, but we do not accept someone yelling fire in a crowded auditorium or theater just to cause a panic. Yet, that is what we are seeing today on the Internet. People are doing posts to confuse and scare the viewers.

 

I think an important question is the following: Who is the editor or controller of what goes onto that high-speed highway. We value news publications that have a good editorial staff that require all stories meet a certain minimal standard in journalism. The sources are checked for accuracy and the story must be relevant and unbiased. There is no such editor for the Internet. Even individual companies who provide Internet services are struggling to filter out fake news and threatening or otherwise dangerous posts. The Internet is like a giant printing press where anything can be produced; some make better use of it than others do, but monitoring all of the digital content in real time on the Internet is just not possible.

 

So where does this leave us? I think we have to decide for ourselves on what is acceptable. How much of our lives do we want exposed? Once we provide information in digital form, there is no guarantee we can ever erase it. We can have a nude or embarrassing picture posted on a website without our permission taken down, but most likely copies are already on numerous servers and computers that we could never locate.

 

We need to be critical of anything we read from the Internet. What is the source? Is it a trusted publication and are we certain it is actually their website? Who is the author? What is their background? Anyone can claim anything. But what is the research that backs up the claim? Are they just expressing an opinion or are they stating something as fact?

 

With freedom comes responsibility, and now more than ever before that responsibility falls upon us as individuals. Most of the sites we visit cannot assure us that the material posted has been carefully reviewed for accuracy and bias. That responsibility is now left to us. I fear that technology has run far ahead of humans’ ability to control and manage it. John Von Neumann was perhaps the greatest mind of the 20th century. He is quoted as saying "the ever accelerating progress of technology ... gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” We may be fast approaching that singularity. Some think it will occur within the next twenty to thirty years.

 

Once the secret to the atom was unlocked, there was no going back. It was up to humans to control and manage an incredible new type of energy. Unfortunately, I think humankind has not been up to the task. Now, we face the very real prospect of sophisticated artificial intelligence. The technology is evolving faster than our ability to control it for the benefit of all. We may soon reach a singularity where everything is undone and there is no going back. And we may not like the new state of human affairs.

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