Save Your Digital Soul

This image was originally posted to Flickr by Andy Hay at https://www.flickr.com/photos/29172291@N00/6287113670. It was reviewed on 30 December 2011 by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

In my last post, I hinted at future hope amid the present chaos. The fires, pandemics, civil unrest, economic inequality, and political strife stem from one common driving force – Humanity teeters on the brink of an unparalleled technological advance. No aspect of life will be spared. Even technologies we’ve grown accustomed to will cause fundamental change.

While the information revolution began years ago, only recently has the full promise been realized. The proliferation of broadband, the ubiquity of smartphones, and major advances in AI all matured at once. As a result, we’re among the first generation to be immersed in the digital realm. Our understanding of this shift needs to catch up before we drown.

Even as an author, I never acclimated to the need for self-promotion. Not to say I didn’t bust my ass to be seen. Paying for ads, running a mailing list, signings at conventions, requesting my books be added to library shelves, distributing to brick and mortar stores – I’ve done the legwork and then some.

With social media, self-promotion becomes more than a full-time job.

But you know exactly what I mean. You’re engaged in full-time self-promotion too. We all are.

Throughout the day we constantly evaluate the worthiness of our actions. Each experience gets weighed and judged before being offered to others for the same treatment. Can we get more likes? Retweets? Perhaps we’ll hit the jackpot and go viral.

There’s that keyword. No, not viral. Jackpot.

By now we’re all aware of the manipulation behind social media. If not, a watch of The Social Dilemma on Netflix will set you straight. A Skinner Box psychology underlies the whole apparatus, much like the reward systems programmed into a slot machine.

You scroll, post, and engage, and are fed positive reinforcement until habits form.

For me the cue came when I picked up my phone one too many times to perform a specific task and found myself scrolling Facebook instead, unsure what I’d originally meant to do.

The app got uninstalled.

If plenty have pointed out the insidious nature about how social media operates, fewer have tackled the Faustian bargain baked into the fine print of those EULAs nobody reads. (License agreements. No service is truly free.)

Social Media companies own your digital soul.

You don’t just agree to surrender rights to your photos, posts, and videos. With every click and search you agree to hand over the most private of information: personal secrets, medical issues, political leanings, religious beliefs. Much more than simple shopping habits.

Most users seem fine with the exchange, but only because the true cost isn’t fully understood.

From those online activities, social media companies build a digital “you”, a profile, which increases the ability to manipulate user interactions and steer real-world behavior.

Even when the data are anonymized, it can still be used to sway entire populations. American election interference? A trivial matter. How about full on genocide.

This new age has two currencies. Forget physical currencies and gold. Your data and time are the most valuable resources for the world to come.

So why give them away for free?

True, data can be collected and harvested for beneficial purposes. Reconnecting with long lost friends. Joining support groups. Medical treatment. Political activism (though too often, people mistake a post or a digital petition for true activism.)

Unregulated, however, the same data can and will be used against you. Allowing abusive spouses to locate their exes. Promoting indoctrination into hate groups. Denial of coverage for expensive or pre-exisiting conditions.

Just five years ago, nobody was talking about state-level actors weaponizing social media. Criminal enterprises can leverage the unfettered access to hack passwords, steal identities, engage in blackmail. Corporations will always place their bottom line above the ethical use of such data.

Kept in perpetuity by any single source, data outside of your own control becomes a liability.

We need laws to address this new reality. The EU has enacted such legislation, but their stock markets aren’t increasingly dependent on the long term survival of the same companies in need of regulation (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon).

For now, we have to assume our gridlocked, antiquated system will never stand up for us. We’re on our own.

As a private citizen the best thing you can do is to stop giving away your data.

For me, this means moving all my interactions to my website and a few trusted sources. My website is a service I pay for and a space I own under my control. I’ll post links on social media directing to this site (which the algorithm will likely refuse to share) but that’s all.

I’ve also removed social media apps from my phone. Those not only broadcast up my likes and dislikes but even more unsettling data like GPS coordinates and recorded audio snippets.

I now use privacy-focused technology. Brave is my browser of choice. DuckDuckGo my default search engine.

If you continue to use social media on a regular basis, review your privacy settings every month or even weekly. Turn off any data sharing and collection. Switch to a private instead of a public profile. Remove “friends” you don’t interact with. Even then, assume whatever you do and say will become public knowledge.

Don’t trust the platform with your most valuable resource.

At the very least, everyone should turn off notifications for their social media apps. This is where the value of your time and attention comes into play.

Casino developers often intentionally make the exits difficult to find. Much the same, social media apps make escape impossible. They know they’ll be in your pocket a beep or a vibration away from interaction.

Deny them control over your time. Use such apps on your schedule.

We need to create a reality where we don’t’ surrender power so easily. Where we have greater control over our personal destiny. Democratic institutions have been a crucial step in that direction, but aren’t the final destination.

Promises of true freedom have often come with conditions and escape clauses – EULAs meant to keep certain populations enslaved or subordinate to a ruling class. Over time, these aging institutions proved susceptible to manipulation by external forces. Those forces always wage war against individual rights using the currency of the age.

We are the currency of the future. We are the ones in control. Act accordingly. Protect your most precious resources from exploitation.

For fans of my fiction, I’m still wrestling with this message and how it impacts what I write. Short stories? Novels? It isn’t clear what direction I’ll go, but I want to look forward, not back.

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