Picturing light snow, and thinking about privacy and our digital selves

by Rob Tiller

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It snowed in Raleigh this week, which was kind of exciting and kind of annoying. I love the transformative quality of snow – all that clean white soft quietness. But moving about in a normal human way becomes difficult. When I tried to drive rear-wheel-drive Clara to work, we got stuck as soon as I cleared the door of the apartment building garage. Unable to get up the modest slope, we managed to back down to a lucky parking space, and I walked the mile or so into work – in 18 degree cold. Burrr!
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On the way, I used my new camera, a Nikon D7100 with a Nikkor 10-24mm lens, to get a few images of my snowy neighborhood. I forgot to adjust the ISO, which I’d previously set at 800, but it didn’t seem to cause noise problems. I’ve been reading a book titled Mastering the Nikon D7100, which sounds very boring, but doesn’t seem so at all – which suggests I’m becoming a photo nerd. Oh well. There really is a lot to learn about this camera, but it can do so much! It sounds a little weird, but I’m feeling warmly towards it – almost like a new friend.
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Speaking of digital devices and friends, there was a lively essay by Colin Koopman in the NY Times this week about why we’re struggling so to grasp the nature of the problem with the NSA’s increasing intrusiveness into our lives. Koopman proposes that we should start viewing ourselves more as data (“info persons”). It is, after all, the way we’re viewed by our internet service providers (Google, Bing, Facebook,LinkedIn, Twitter, Amazon, eBay, Opentable, Angry Birds, etc. etc.).

Koopman proposes a simple thought experiment: imagine what would happen if all our digital data, from social security numbers to credit card accounts, medical records, school records, bank records, insurance records, search queries, book preferences, food preferences, porn preferences, avatars, Instagrams, Tweats, and posts – suddenly disappeared. Try it.

When I did, my stomach did a quick shimmy and I felt a bit of vertigo.

His point, I think, is that we have trouble grasping the privacy issue posed by mass electronic surveillance, because we have trouble grasping how our digital technology has transformed us, changed what a human being is. Our digital selves are an increasingly integral part of the human fabric. Because we still don’t quite get how they relate to the pre-digital revolution part of our lives, we tend to not notice them or downplay their significance.

But advertisers and spys have realized that, from another point of view, the digital self is a high value target, enabling the intruder to predict with a high degree of accuracy what we will buy on Amazon and view of Netflix tonight and do with ourselves tomorrow. The new Age of Information is transforming commerce and law enforcement, but it we haven’t evolved political or legal tools to address it.

Our privacy is closely related to our dignity, and to community. We all have imperfections or oddities that we prefer to keep concealed. They may be physical flaws, financial limitations, unusual appetites, or unpopular ideas. Our ability to maintain self-respect and to live in cooperative groups depends on a tacit mutual agreement to respect boundaries for these differences, and to not insist that they be exposed.

We didn’t realize until recently that just by using the new normal tools of communication and commerce, we had opened the door on our private selves. Once we know that our health problems, financial problems, sexual proclivities, and other traits are within view of strangers, we feel diminished and alienated. This is why, even leaving aside the risk of tyranny, data privacy matters.

Speaking of technology and transformation, on Friday we had a nice dinner at Capital Club 16 (an eclectic and vegetarian-friendly place) and went over to Mission Valley to see Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, the voice of Scarlett Johansson, and the wonderful Amy Adams. It’s about a new sort of digital assistant app that is so human that humans fall in love with it – and it with them.

The premise didn’t seem farfetched to me. I thought it was touching and unsettling, though kind of slow toward the end. The next day I was still thinking about the themes: how prone to loneliness we are, how desperate to connect, how ecstatic in love, how despondent in loss, how changeable, and also how resilient.
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