Saturday, June 30, 2012

Diminishing Privacy

Technology destroys privacy
Technology is quickly eliminating privacy. From the iPhone that tracks your every move to the ubiquitous security cameras, it is getting harder and harder to lead an anonymous life free from prying eyes. Governments want to eliminate privacy so they can maintain power. Corporations want to do away with privacy so they can maximize their profits. Some may not mind this loss of privacy. They may even think that if you have nothing to hide why be concerned. But that's like saying if you have a nice looking body with no cellulite why wear clothes.

For governments its a control issue. maintaining and increasing power is the natural disposition of any ruler. The more controlling and paranoid the ruler the less privacy its citizens enjoy. One example of a breach of privacy caused by paranoia is the break in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters that was eventually traced back to staff members of president Richard M. Nixon. Totalitarian regimes like China, Iran or North Korea tend to allow their citizens very little privacy, and for good reason. These regimes create so many enemies that they would likely be toppled without keeping a close eye on everyone and nipping any opposition movements in the bud. Some regimes like the Nazi's went to the extreme of encouraging people to inform on their neighbors and even children to inform on their parents. In our modern technological world, this hardly seems necessary anymore.

Today, for a government of any country with decent internet penetration, large volumes of information are readily available. Where as in times past collecting, storing and accessing information about citizens was slow and cumbersome requiring much administration and even file space, nowadays enormous dossiers on every netizen can be collected and stored cheaply and compactly on computer disks. Now if you're a really ambitious ruler you can also canvas all your cities with video cameras like Britain. Couple this with facial recognition software and the transponder that almost everyone carries around with them everywhere they go (cell phone) and big brother is practically automated.

Because of terrorism and crime, people are so fearful they gladly hand over their privacy and freedom to feel just a little safer.They prefer being filmed on CCTV 24 hours a day to being mugged in a dark alley. They will stand in line for hours, remove their shoes and let screeners see their naked bodies in the backscatter image just to feel a little safer about flying. Whether they are any safer as a result is a whole other debate.

As far reaching as this might seem government has nothing on corporations when it comes to diminishing privacy. Google for example gathers huge amounts of data by tracking your searches. Some social networking sites like Facebook track your internet activity even after you've logged out. Credit card card companies track your purchases. Microsoft and other software companies gather data on your usage of their software. To make matters worse these databases are often combined and then sold, sometimes to unscrupulous entities or worse they are hacked and fall into the hands of criminals.

The intention of these companies seems innocent enough at first. Its usually to find out what products or services you will buy and then put ads in you inbox, mailbox or web page. Is this annoying? Sometimes. Is it evil?  Not really. However, sometimes erroneous inferences are made about you because the information being tracked is wrong or incorrect extrapolations are being made. Usually this simply results in products you have no interest in being offered to you, but sometimes it can result in big problems for the individual ranging from an undeservedly bad credit score to wrongful incarceration. This later problem can result when police or government agencies get a hold of the information and human error causes them to think X, Y & Z because you bought A,B & C.

Some feel that this loss of privacy is good, that its progressive and will unite humanity. They believe that if there's no privacy, people will be less likely to do bad things since everyone will know about it. While this may be true for some, its obvious that many of the people who commit crimes are sufficiently dimwitted enough to miss that point. How many times have we heard about people committing crimes and posting YouTube videos of it or talking about it on Facebook. Sure, this usually gets them locked up, but it didn't stop the crime and after they get out they're likely to just pick up where they left off.

The ubiquity of technology has made it very difficult to opt out of this system. Teachers post homework assignments on Facebook, which requires an account to access. Jobs are generally posted on line not in the paper, which requires an online resume. You usually can't reserve a hotel or rent a car without a credit card.  Its not impossible to avoid ending up in one of these dossier databases, but it is impractical.

Even our homes and yards are now visible through online satellite photos and Google street view. Great, now everyone world wide can see the weeds in my yard. Isn't it just a little creepy that with a few Google searches anyone can see where you live, what you do, how old you are, etc.

Technology has expanded our choices in many ways. We have hundreds of cable channels. Stores are filled with an unprecedented variety of products. Via the internet we can choose to be friends with thousands of people on any continent. However, one choice that seems to be disappearing rapidly is the choice to live a quite, private life where only the people we want to know us, do.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sensory Overload

Information Overload
The average person is overstimulated on a daily basis and this has effected the way their entire body, particularly the nervous system, works. Interestingly the overstimulation is multifaceted. It includes everything from too much information to too much sugar and constant stress often coped with by the constant intake of mood altering chemicals.

Too Much Information
The average person in developed lands is subjected to more information in a few days than Charles Ingalls would have been in his entire lifetime. You can't even take all of that in, let alone process it. You are left with no choice but to sift and slice taking in bits and pieces with very little time and attention to give any one thing. This tends to create a reactive demeanor where we just automatically react to stimuli rather than think and respond. This effect works well for advertisers who gain when we reflexively buy things we really don't need.

Actually a great deal of the overstimulation is due to the excessive advertising in our culture. Imagine your average day. You wake up and maybe watch the morning news and see commercials, you drive to work and hear commercials on the radio, you see billboards with ads, you may even see cars that have been painted to be mobile billboards. When you get to work you have to sift through spam in your inbox. There's often fliers in the break room, an employee who's selling candy bars for their kids school or perhaps an Avon rep. When you get home more TV commercials, email spam, the occasional telemarketer and junk mail. Most of the advertising is for things that we have little or no need for. If we were to give our full attention to these messages we would have time for little else. In order to survive we learn to tune much of it out.

In addition to advertising we can also get information overload from things of relative importance. At work I have constantly incoming emails, frequent text messages and phone calls as well as IM. Most of it demanding to be answered immediately. Some have social media messages to respond to and RSS feeds to read as well. There's news 'round the clock on cable channels like CNN and MSNBC. News papers, magazines and  an endless parade of books and web sites. A couple hundred years ago most people owned a few books and they often read them over and over again. Today I have so much to read that I find it hard to even finish reading something once.

Due to these conflicting demands on our time and attention, the myth of multitasking arose. I call it a myth because inherent in multitasking is the erroneous belief that you can truly do multiple things at once. Actually multitasking is less efficient than just doing one thing at a time because you are continually starting and stopping. You also usually end up doing the task more poorly because of the lack of concentration. In the end it just gives you the impression you're more productive. If you still doubt this is a myth read here.

Shock and Awe
Today people are subjected to shocking things regularly. News reports of horrors both foreign and domestic bombard us daily. Movies and TV are filled with violent scenes and explosions. Music videos and video games grow increasingly more disturbing. Celebrities like wise invent more and more outlandish ways of garnering attention. In order to cope the brain and body become desensitized. We find what used to shock us now doesn't even raise an eyebrow.

The brain reacts to stimulation by releasing neurotransmitters. The more the stimulation the more neurotransmitters are released. If one becomes overstimulated the brain learns to adjust. In order to regain balance it learns to either increase the uptake of the neurotransmitter or release less upon stimulation. This is why it requires more to feel just as stimulated. This is the same kind of mechanism that takes place when people take drugs whether its coffee or cocaine. The more you use the more your body adjusts and thus the more it takes to feel the sensation.

Overstimulated palate
Five hundred years ago the spice trade was a very lucrative business. Spices were so valuable because they were such a novelty and required shipping over long distances from where they were produced. They were one of the few really stimulating things in life. Today spices both natural and artificial are everywhere. Piquant, salty, sweet what ever your taste is, its available and usually relatively inexpensively. But what happens when the palate is continually subjected to overstimulation? It begins to become desensitized.

Sugar is so plentiful today that we are literally killing ourselves with it. Today just about everything is sweetened and its not just our palate that's becoming desensitized. When you take in sugar or starch, which converts to sugar, and it enters the blood stream your pancreas releases insulin. This is required to limit the amount of sugar in the blood as too much can be deadly. However, if you continue to trigger large releases of insulin, because of over consumption of sugar or starch, your cells will eventually become insulin resistant.

Continuous State of Emergency
With the deterioration of world conditions and the news media reporting it 24 hours a day in a hyped up style many people find themselves experiencing burn out from being in a continuous state of alert. The body's fight or flight response was designed for short term use to help us avoid harm. The stress hormones released that give us the heightened senses and reflexes are very hard on the body and we require down time to recuperate. In our modern world, filled with terrorism, crime and crisis, we don't often get that down time. This leaves us feeling drained, depressed and sometimes results in damage to our brains and organs. Is it any wonder then, that to survive, we often find ourselves becoming desensitized to these sources or stimulation.

Some people cope with this stress by taking medications or other mood altering substances. Hard drugs like cocaine or meth cause people to have a sense of well being by manipulating the dopamine levels or the receptivity to it. The problem here is that once again the body tries to restore balance and becomes desensitized to the effects. Even coffee, which when drunk occasionally can produce strong effects, eventually becomes necessary to just feel normal when consumed regularly.

Balance and Simplicity
In a world that seems to be in love with the extreme, what's really needed is balance and simplicity. To much of anything will exact a cost and impair our quality of life. The palate that is not overwhelmed with flavor can taste much more and the brain that has less to give attention to can think more deeply. A life free of overstimulation is simply healthier and happier and you might even remember more of it.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Technology & Materialism

As I have stated before technology is simply the ability to do or make things. What things we choose to do or make with this ability is where the problem occurs. Materialism, that is the preoccupation and over emphasis on material objects and the comforts they provide, is more to blame for the current sick condition of both our planet and our society.

Shopping has become the national pastime and for some an addiction. Its reported that nearly 70% of the U.S. economy is consumption of consumer goods and services and it seems that the rest of the world is desperately struggling to attain that for them selves. A life focused on consumption is a vain, unhappy life indeed. Technology could have given us more time to do meaningful things that would have truly enhanced our life, however as a society we have chosen instead to have more stuff. In fact many have chosen to become slaves to this stuff by buying on credit.

The current rate of consumption in developed countries is both harmful to the environment and the soul. To the environment it is destructive primarily because it is wasteful and/or toxic. Most of the stuff that's purchased was made in a way that was economically not environmentally efficient, was purchased unnecessarily and will get thrown into a landfill or incinerator within a few months. It is damaging to the soul because it wastes our time and never truly satisfies us.

Time Saver or Time Waster
Time savings could have been the biggest benefit of technology. The ability to automate laborious and/or boring tasks so we can be free to do other more fulfilling things is a great idea. Unfortunately we have filled those free hours with more, just as laborious and/or boring, work and meaningless recreation such as excessive TV watching. 

One example of an invention that could have saved us time but doesn't is the automobile. Being able to drive anywhere you want in a climate controlled vehicle at high speed is a good thing. It should have saved us lots of time, yet how many of us spend hour after wretched hour stuck in traffic commuting to work five days a week? Ironically the recent downturn in the economy has lessened the traffic congestion due to less people commuting to work and then driving to the mall to spend their earnings. Some might conclude that we have a choice between prosperity and time. I would say that depends on how you define prosperity.

What Is True Prosperity
Most sources today would say prosperity is physical wealth, money and the stuff it can buy. The material abundance produced by technology has aided this notion's acceptance. In contrast before the industrial revolution most people knew that prosperity is more than having stuff. In fact beyond life's basic necessities it has nothing to do with how much stuff you own. True prosperity and happiness means being at peace with yourself, others and especially your creator. Having the time to think deep thoughts, bond with others and serve your creator is much more valuable than a big screen TV or an extra 1000 square feet in your house. Sadly few seem to realize this and so at an early age they step onto the treadmill and begin running until for one reason or another they are unable to keep up.

The recent downturn in the economy has caused thousands to fall off that treadmill. By force they have been made to live a simplier life, one less focused on consuming. As a result some go through what might be considered withdrawal symptoms as they are unable to treat the emptiness they feel with shopping, vacations or eating out. Others just learn to cope, hoping for a return to the days of plenty. A few though have realized the benefits of consuming less, being debt free and spending time doing things that are more healthy and fulfilling.

Time Spent Wisely
He is born. He plays and learns. He builds a home and works hard to stock it with good things. He finds a mate and produces offspring. He grows old and dies. I've just described the life of a squirrel and unfortunately many millions of human beings. How we choose to spend our time can make the difference between a vain animal like existence and a purposeful life.

Time is one thing we all have an equal amount of. Yes, some may live longer than others, but on a day to day basis we each have 24 hours, no more, no less. How should you spend it? The best way to consider the answer to that question is to think about when your time may be up. At the end of your life what will matter most to you? Will you be thinking I wish I had bought that new pair of shoes? Or possibly I wish I had spent more time at work and maybe I would have gotten that promotion? For most people at the end of their life what the wish they had most is more time. Isn't that why we go to doctors and hospitals, to buy more time?

Since a relationship with our creator and faith in his son will buy us an eternity (John 17:3) shouldn't that be our first priority? And since our happiest memories are those spent with loved ones, especially our spouse and children, shouldn't that be our second priority? Certainly its necessary to spend some time working to support ourselves and buying necessary things, but a life where working and consuming is the main focus bears a sobering resemblance to that of a squirrel.

Its Materialism Not Technology
I conclude once again its materialism and the imperfect human nature that causes us to gravitate to it that is the real problem. Technology used wisely and where it can really improve our lives is a good thing. Unfortunately technology has been misused to clutter our lives with time wasting gadgets, frustrating commutes, polluted air & water, and unnatural lifestyles that wreak havoc on everything from our nervous systems to our posture.