A study out from Accenture this week found that half of Philadelphia respondents were creeped out by intelligent services running on their digital devices, by software tools they both rely on and fear. Because that smart stuff gets to know so much about them and then eerily anticipates their needs.
America’s relationship with technology has often been a love-hate, give-and-get thing, for as long as I’ve been observing the scene – first as a teen of the 1960s, then as a young adult journalist covering the nascent tech landscape of the late ’70s.
I’ve always been an advocate for change, for the hot new thing, even though I know it’s a dance with the devil that could eventually cost me dearly. Disruptive innovations often scare people, as it makes their old reliable stuff seem passe while new improvements seem dangerous. The hue and cry over the “horseless carriage” and the automatic elevator seem especially ripe to recall just now, while many are freaking out over the looming arrival of self-driving cars.
“The only constant is change” scenario can be a positive. I have drawers stuffed with yesterday’s gear — personal digital assistants, digital still cameras, microcassette recorders. and MP3 music players — that have all been incorporated into and surpassed by the latest smartphone in my pocket.
Besides clutter reduction, new tech’s added polish saves time and energy. As a cub reporter, I toiled on a gray Royal manual typewriter (just as in All the President’s Men), writing on “copy books” with three carbon copies for editors to scribble over, and send along (via a vacuum-powered tube chute) to the hot-lead typesetters in the composing room. If a story required more than a little revision, I had to retype the whole thing. And if I needed topic research, I had to ask the in-house librarian to send down an envelope filled with smelly old clips – archives that Temple University now preserves.
Had the word-processing computer and internet search engine come sooner, I might have avoided some stressful situations. Will never forget the time I was caustically dressed down by the legendary John Houseman, just as he regularly did to his students as a law prof on The Paper Chase TV series, because I had only a half-hour to cram before our hastily scheduled interview. “You’d have known the answer to that question if you’d read my two autobiographies!” Houseman fumed.
But with today’s added efficiencies also come added demands and compromises. There’s no time to rest in the world’s voracious 24-hour, digital-first news cycle. Score the scoop or lose the clicks (and your job!).
Media obsession with the latest/greatest has also sped up the refreshing of tech products, not necessarily a good thing. While old-school company founders like Sony’s Akio Morita, Bose’s Amar Bose, and Lutron’s Joel Spira all professed their reasoned code of “serve no product before its time,” today’s quarterly-returns-obsessed CEOs aren’t all so pro-consumer. I’m convinced the rush to rapidly renew a product line is a core reason we’ve seen cellphones spontaneously blow up and poorly engineered major appliances wear out after just a few years of service.
And as that Accenture study found, a tech-obsessed populace now conditioned to demand a deluge of online content for “free” is asking for trouble if they don’t also consider the consequences and plan accordingly. There’s still “no such thing as a free lunch.” One writer recently suggested that even cars might someday be given away to consumers, because the snooping software loaded onto the vehicle’s computer will profit from monitoring and marketing your every move, pointing you toward a favored restaurant or a specific hospital’s ER facility if you’ve taken ill.
One choice is to either relax and enjoy the useful guidance of modern tech, or don’t leave a thick trail of crumbs. Accenture Strategy’s Tom Jacobson notes that the more you search for an item, the more likely sellers will pick up your scent. If you’re really “just browsing,” don’t put an item in your basket. And be aware that the ability to snoop keeps improving as sellers, using Artificial Intelligence, work to connect the dots, get a bigger picture of who you are, what you want and need.
To stay private, turn off geolocation features on your phone and tablet when you don’t absolutely need the help to get someplace. Diligently search for and clear out the “cookies” that attach themselves to your accounts and gear when you visit a site. And instead of relying on Google, post inquiries to an alternative, “privacy first” search engine like DuckDuckGo, based in Paoli, which doesn’t store and share users’ IP addresses and online journeys.