Thursday, December 26, 2013

On computers and the Internet

Sonja: You have yet to set up the new laptop I bought you for Christmas...

Jason: I'm sorry... I started doing it, but then felt such a sense of dread, that I abandoned it. For now.

Sonja: That's quite strange coming from you. In the past you just could not wait to get your hands on a new computer...

Jason: I know. And I know it is strange, but computers seem to have lost their appeal for me. I fear them now...

Sonja: Fear?? What's there to fear? It's just a machine. A tool. Or a toy.

Jason: It's not the machine itself, but what it represents.

Sonja: What does it represent? For you?

Jason: Disappointment. Disillusionment. Sense of betrayal. Misplaced love.

Sonja: Wow. That's a handful. Again, it's just a machine. How could it possibly betray you?

Jason: I used to have such high hopes for this technology. Finally, a tool that would set us free, change the world, allow us to be creators, not mere consumers.

Sonja: That's still valid, isn't it? Computers have changed the world and are continuing to do so. They gave voice to people who otherwise would not have a voice. Look at all the blogs, tweets, social media explosion.

Jason: But that's exactly part of the problem. We're drowning in the cacophony of trivial, useless, narcissistic crap that contributes nothing while taking away precious, non-renewable resource - our time.

Sonja: You can ignore it.

Jason: Of course! But that is getting more and more difficult. Often you have to wade through tons of garbage in order to get to a voice that has something interesting or profound to say.

Sonja: That's why you have search engines. Filters. Use them.

Jason: I do, but that's another trap - a perfidious one. As you know, the companies behind search engines make their money by selling targeted ads. They collect info about your interests, so that someone can sell you stuff.

Sonja: Ignore that, too. You have not signed off your power to choose.

Jason: Oh, I do. I do my best to ignore them. But the fact remains that the whole focus has shifted: we're being molded into ultimate consumers and expected to behave as such. Some people can resist that. Many more can't. This is getting too clever for most. Often, it is also the price of entry. Did you notice, for example, that the companies behind the computer hardware and operating systems are no longer satisfied with building hardware and OS, but are trying to trap them inside their proprietary ecosystems? I guess it started with Apple, tying people to iThis, iThat... Now everybody is doing it. This new laptop - it has tons of hooks left there by Microsoft with bait for you to swallow... Want to use Skype? Sign in with your Microsoft online account and synchronize it with your Skype account. Every step of the way there are barriers built in to build up your dependence on the other Microsoft products - their ecosystem. Google is not any better - just try setting up a new Android tablet. There are still choices and workarounds but they are often hidden and require extra effort or knowledge. Most people just give up and accept what is presented to them. They just swallow the bait, the hook, and sinker.

Sonja: I guess you have a point here. But the fact that people abdicate their power of choice - it's not exactly computer's fault, is it?

Jason: I think it is, because computers make it easy and entice us to do so. They are like the sirens from sailors' myths - the sailors can tie themselves to a mast and avoid being sucked in by the siren song, but those who don't and drown - are they really the ones to blame? Especially if they had no warning? This is a new territory here. We're just learning how to exist in this constantly changing world.

Sonja: It this any different from television? Many people spend hours and hours entertaining themselves into a stupor, but there is always the remote. Or the power button on the TV set.

Jason: That's part of my peeve. In may respects computers have become like television: yet another medium for pumping mindless entertainment to keep the public docile and stupid. Crowds in ancient Rome would start revolts by demanding "panem et circenses" (bread and circuses). Advanced economies don't need to worry too much about providing their citizens with bread. Thanks to computers and the Internet, the masses are never short of entertainment. The trap has closed.

Sonja: Maybe I'm too optimistic, but I still believe we're not slaves. We can walk away. We just choose not to - maybe because, in the end, the benefits outweigh the costs. You know, we get connected to other people we wouldn't have a chance to connect to otherwise. We get to know different points of view...

Jason: Do we? I think the opposite is true: we're building our own echo chambers, seeking those who think like us and tuning out other voices. It's easier than before. Here's where your filters come in so handy.

Sonja: I don't think you can insulate yourself so easily. The Internet is too big a place and the barriers are low. Even private discussion groups get infiltrated by outsiders and people with different views. I also did not finish my list of benefits before you interrupted. What about all the convenience and time savings this technology introduced into our lives? You no longer have to waste time going to different stores to buy the things you need - you can do it quickly from home, while often saving money by comparing prices. What about not having to stand in line at the bank? Finding a restaurant with the best reviews from actual customers?

Jason: It's true, but what about the inconvenience - to say the least - of having your identity stolen? Or your online bank account  broken into? Or you computer infected with nasty viruses? The Internet has become this huge and highly profitable playground for criminals of all stripes. Robbing a bank used to come with considerable risk and thus required some  guts. Now you can do it from the convenience of your home, breaking in through someone else's compromised computer. The losses are staggering and we all ultimately pay their cost. Yes, you can buy a new refrigerator online, but you can also buy child porn as easily. Is this a worthy trade off? I doubt it.

Sonja: All these negatives can be overcome with technology and laws. When it comes to the Internet, we're still in its Wild West period. It will get civilized, eventually.  Just like people in Arizona are no longer wary of roaming gangs of outlaws. In any case, we will have to pick up this discussion some other time - I need to run some errands.

Jason: Talk to you later.