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Opt-ions Seven

Seven posts seems like a good place to wrap all of this up: a nice, neat number that often is used to signify completion.  Seven deadly sins.  Seven virtues.  Seven seas.  And seven posts… well… really ten posts… about the same book.  They were:

  1. Do We Have the Right to be Forgotten (Part One)
  2. Do We Have the Right to be Forgotten (Part Two)
  3. Do We Have the Right to be Forgotten (Part Three)
  4. Opt-ions One
  5. Opt-ions Two
  6. Opt-ions Three
  7. Opt-ions Four
  8. Opt-ions Five
  9. Opt-ions Six

And now, Opt-ions Seven.


Image: Ali T via Flickr

The book we’ve been discussing is The Circle by Dave Eggers.  Which a bunch of you guessed the moment I brought up whether we have the right to be forgotten, and many more of you already know because you emailed me to ask which book.  (Do you also peek at the last page of a book?  I do too.)  It’s a good book; a little clunky at times and a little heavy-handed with the analogies, but enjoyable and it fulfills my mark of a good book: it changes my mood or makes me think.  And this book did both.

I would guess based on this book as well as his lack of social media accounts that I’m probably more comfortable online than Dave Eggers.  And I’m probably less comfortable than many of you because I read and weigh every terms of service plus I adjust my usage of a site accordingly.

The place I am most myself is on my blog; this is where you will find my deepest thoughts.  This is why when people say “blogging is dead,” I look at the people to my left and right and say, “nope.”  There are still plenty of us who want ownership of our words and images.  Who don’t want to place them on someone else’s real estate.  This is my home on the Web, and all those social media accounts are places I visit.  Which isn’t to say that I’m not myself on Facebook or Twitter or other sites.  I’m just a very guarded version of myself.

And a lot of that has to do with control.

I’m under no illusion that I have complete control of my words and images as they go up on this site.  The moment this post goes up online, I release my control over its trajectory.  But maybe I still feel as if I have some control over the blog post because I’ve opted in to what I’m sharing.  In the same way that I have control over my car whereas I don’t have control over my ride on a plane, even if, at the same time, my car ride could still be affected by the actions of others.  If you haven’t guessed, I am more comfortable in cars than in planes.

Anyway, on this blog, I’ve chosen what I put on the screen, what you know.  If I don’t want you to know something, I simply don’t tell you.  For instance, you don’t know what type of underwear I wear.  Haven’t told you.  And I won’t.  And so you’ll never know.

Maybe I’m squeamish about all other places on the Web because there is so much taken from me that I have not opted in to give.  I mean, yes, I read the terms of service and understood — a bit — how this was going to go down.  But I don’t think anyone knew back when they started their Facebook account that in owning one, you were allowing the company to track all of your Web browser history.  Facebook knows what sites you visit, and it’s all tied to the name you gave on your Facebook account and the identifying numbers associated with your computer.  We can opt out of being served ads based on our browser history, but “the Web sites you visit may still collect information for other purposes.”  The reality is that you need to revisit that opt out site on a daily basis, every time the cookies expire or are deleted, to make sure you’re not being tracked.  It’s exhausting.

Most of the time, it makes me want to throw up my hands and say, “you win.”

I don’t even know whom I’m saying that to or what I mean by winning.

I labeled this series “Opt-ion” as a play on the idea of opting in.  Options.  Having options.  Electing to do something.  And separately, the concept of ions, which is an atom that can have a positive or negative charge based on the number of electrons and protons.  Depending on how we use it, the Internet has the chance to be a positive space or a negative space.

It raises the last interesting question: can anything be successful if people are given the option to opt out?  Social rules work because while they can’t be enforced except through other social concepts such as shaming, we all opt in to social rules to make society run smoothly.  We don’t, for instance, greet people with the words “go fuck yourself!” even if we’re thinking it in our brain.  Mostly because we know that society would breakdown if we didn’t get everyone opting in to the idea of niceties.  So we smile benignly, and comment on the weather, and in doing so, society hums along without anyone’s feelings getting hurt.

If we told people that they had the option to be polite, no harm no foul if they chose to go a different route, would anyone be polite?  Or does politeness only work if we act as if everyone needs to opt in?

There are so many places where we can’t opt out, and it helps to keep things running smoothly.  You can’t just decide to drive a car.  You need to get a license.  Many people don’t want people to be able to opt out of a background check to purchase a gun, and we want that background check to mean something.

So it raises the question: if we’re serious about stopping crime, if we’re serious about making the world a better place, should we allow the world the ability to opt out when it comes to tracking, if that tracking is being used for the greater good?  Would you agree to have every aspect of your life tracked — your browser history, your physical movements, your actions — if it meant a complete annihilation of any crime including the ones that hit closest to home such as domestic violence or child abuse?

If we only track the “bad guys” that we know, what do we do about all the “bad guys” we don’t know?

The book is chilling; I’m not going to lie to you.  As I said, it changed my mood.  Made me feel a little queasy.  Made me wonder how much I really wanted to carry my mobile phone.  Or use it.  But maybe that’s a good thing.  I am not going offline any time soon; I get too much out of blogging and social media.  But all these questions do make me comport myself in a certain way, and teach the kids to comport themselves in a certain way.  And again, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  Like ions, it’s important to realize that everything can have a positive or negative charge.


1 a { 07.03.14 at 12:09 pm }

I think the ability to opt out is part of the dichotomy of American society. On the one hand, we have the great freedom to opt into or out of religion and to greet people with “go fuck yourself” (which I would LOVE to use as my standard greeting, given the people I generally encounter) and to assemble at will and to tell the government how wrong it is. We don’t have to admit to all our wro ngdoings and that’s not supposed to count against us. There are many things we can opt out of and it makes for a great feeling of freedom. On the other hand, the. Things we opt out of (universal healthcare, firearms registry) are hotly debated issues that are contentious and divisive and make us seem less than civilized.

But I guess the real message that I got from the book, and from dealings within a society, is that information might be used for the greater good…or it might be used for simple accumulation of power. And given the nature of people, I think the latter is more likely. Who determines what’s right and what’s wrong? We have a Supreme Court for that now, and half the time I disagree with them. They’re supposedly the most learned, fairest people in the country – but they’re not always right.

2 Mali { 07.03.14 at 6:42 pm }

I’m still thinking on this general subject, but I had to respond now to disagree that the Supreme Court are supposedly the “most learned, fairest people in the country” when they are blatant political appointees, and are often appointed precisely because of their political views, which is very different from being fair or learned. I guess on that basis if you’re disagreeing with them “half of the time” it reflects that political bias. (Just the view of someone on the other side of the world who has been interested in US politics for over 30 years.)

I’ve just “opted out” because I didn’t know about that. But this whole question of our lives on the internet and our fundamental lack of privacy has been scary, but thought-provoking. Thanks for raising it!

And I’m off now to buy this book. I hope it doesn’t give me nightmares.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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