I should know better, at this late date, than to be surprised by pretty much anything that happens in the digital realm.
But I will say that I was once again dismayed this morning, as I have been on so many other mornings, to read in the New York Times that some company or another — this time AOL — had inadvertently published some personally identifiable information to the Web.
This time, it was 20 million search queries, conducted by more than half a million people. How embarrassing! How irresponsible of AOL! And how stupid of us!
I despair for us ever taking the steps to prevent this kind of stuff from happening, and I include myself in that statement.
I've got a bumper sticker on my car, in the style of the famous 'milk' adverts, that says “Got crypto?” It was given to me several years ago by a world-famous computer security guy. And while it usually makes me chuckle at our little in-joke, today I looked at it with some regret. Because the short answer to the question is, “No, as a matter of fact, I don't got crypto.”
And why don't I? This stymies me. I've been writing about privacy issues just exactly like these since, well, 1984. We have the technology to protect our email from being snooped and our Web searches from being tied to our IP addresses. Yet I've never been willing to go to the trouble to do it, and frankly, as far as I know, neither has my computer security guy.
“We were keeping our eye on 1984,” writes Neil Postman in the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death. “When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves … But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another — slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. … In Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
And while perhaps I haven't totally lost my capacity to think, I have spent the last 20+ years ignoring the obvious (and cheap, really) protections when it comes to my online privacy. I certainly resist mightily anything that could possibly slow down the pleasure of the fast click-and-response, or the easy purchase of a book, or the watching of a YouTube clip or anything else I've come to expect from this medium.
In Brave New World Revisited, Huxley remarked that those who are always on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
As Postman says, maybe it was Huxley and not Orwell that was right.