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Big Tech Dangers and Character

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Two very interesting articles this weekend on the dangers of the Internet.  One from the Wall Street Journal on impending privacy regulations.  This is a good thing.  What I find most interesting is the amount of money people are making trading our data, which we are giving to them for free.  As the opening paragraph of the piece puts it:

We are finally waking up to the fact that we aren’t merely “the product” of companies like Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s GOOGL -2.20% Google. As one Silicon Valley investor put it, we are their fuel.

Think of it this way – these companies, some of the largest in the world – are making billions of dollars trading something that you own.  Even if you do not mind having your stuff out there for the world to see, don’t you think you ought to get a cut of this action?  Let’s say Facebook has sold my data ten times.  Further let’s say, just making a number up, they got $5 for my data with each sale.  So they made $50 selling stuff that I own.  Should they not at least have had to buy it from me before they could resell it?  (OK, maybe they provide a service in exchange for my data – but have I had the opportunity to determine if the service is worth what my data is worth?)  And given that they can sell it multiple times, shouldn’t I enjoy some royalties on each sale?  (Again, even if we assume their service is compensation, have I had an opportunity to check values?)

The other interesting article is in The Atlantic from, by now, very familiar name Franklin Foer.  In this piece Foer, in his typically apocalyptic style, looks at the digital ability to manipulate video, couples it with emerging virtual reality technology, sprinkles in the human tendency to prefer video to the written word and declares an end to reality.  Seriously, that’s the title of the piece, “The End of Reality.”  As with his book, he has one heck of a point, but this reader finds his breathless, sensationalist presentation distracting from the very real dangers.  But the big problem here, as opposed to the privacy issue, is how in the world can we regulate this without getting into censorship?

I cannot help but look at this picture and think that while regulation can help with part of all this, it is not the ultimate answer.  We, the consumer – of Facebook, of video, of whatever – have to become much more sophisticated.  In the end these people are playing us for fools.  I did, after all, uncritically hand my precious data over to Facebook.  If I am too lazy to check the validity of a faked video maybe I deserve to be fooled.

In the end this is really a question of speed.  No regulatory mechanism can move fast enough to keep up with the Internet.  Only an algorithm can keep up with other algorithms, and building a policing algorithm is making the problem worse, not better.  Even if we design our police algorithm only to observe and report, by the time the report gets to people and they react, the damage will have been done and the perps in the wind.

The only way this is going to end well is if we, the consumer, choose not to participate.  We have to be knowledgeable enough and broad-minded enough to at least suspect a rat when we encounter falsified video, even out-of-context video.  We then have to overcome our natural sloth and check it out.  We have to have the self-discipline to think before we fill in the blank when we register for a web site.  And if that web site will not allow us to proceed without filling in a blank we do not want to, we have to have the strength to walk away.

“Knowledgeable,” “broad-minded,” “sloth,” “self-discipline,” “strength” – these are not words used to describe technology or regulation; these are words about character and education.  Our own technology is going to force us to be better people or it is going to destroy us.  The choice is ours.

I am optimistic because I hold the Gospel dear to my heart.  I believe thoroughly in our deep corruption, but I also believe in a God who overcomes and corrects that corruption.  Sometimes we get in God’s way.  History is replete with times when we have not accepted what God was doing and found ourselves moving backwards, not forwards.  But in the end we always invoke what God is doing because in the end it is the only thing that works.

It is going to take a lot more than regulation to fix the problems we are currently confronting.


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