REFLECTION 2013: Our Shadow Selves

on Tuesday, Dec. 31st

There has been no bigger story than that of Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency. Not only because the revelations brought mass surveillance into the national spotlight. The story has also cracked open a chance for all of us to reflect on the role that technology–specifically communications technology–plays in our lives.


As the NSA story has played out we’re beginning to understand that we have a kind of “shadow self” that exists in the form of the metadata we leave behind like so many digital fingerprints. For those of us who live part of our lives online in the form of social media we leave more than fingerprints. We leave behind chronicles of lives that anyone can read.

Some of what we are seeing in the popular culture is an attempt to get away from those “fingerprints.” That’s part of the allure of Snapchat, that oh-so-ephemeral of communication tools. There’s no timeline function on Snapchat. Once an image or video is viewed it is gone, much in the way that a conversation between two friends exists for a moment and then melts away.

Of course that’s partially an illusion. Data has a way of sticking around whether we like it or not. Snapchat says that the company deletes images from their servers after they are opened–that probably saves on storage costs too–but hackers have found ways around that limitation.

In school almost all of us were told to fear the “permanent record,” the litany of our wrongdoings as recorded by teachers and yard supervisors. It was something of a boogie man and now, thanks to 21st century technology, the boogie man is real.

In small ways we profit from the tracking that is going on in the servers of big companies like Google. Services like Google Now, which are pioneering the art of predictive computing create a level of access to information that is almost magical. Like so much in our lives the hidden costs may prove to be far worse than the benefits we gain.

As the debate over mass surveillance continues I hope that the companies who collect data “merely” for profit are not cut any more slack than the governments who do so in the pursuit of power.


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