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Reflections on Our Cyber Selves


“Just Google it.”

You’ve probably said it a thousand times (more if you’re prone to arguments over who pitched Game 6 of the ‘86 World Series or which 90210 star had a reoccurring appearance on Saved by the Bell), but have you considered the implications of your actions? Since the inception of Google in 1998, the world defined by the term “internet” has exploded into every corner of our lives. The internet is instant knowledge at our fingertips, and it gives us the ability to share anything to anyone at any time. This is good, right? The answer is…who really knows? The speed at which humanity’s methods of communicating and learning have changed so quickly that there are massive moral and societal questions that are just being asked now, a full forty years after what became the internet was created. The Cyber Revolution brings with it philosophical questions that are at least as pressing as those that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, and that little societal upheaval spawned everything from socialism to mass urbanization. We are rapidly approaching a crossroads in which some really difficult questions must be addressed, and as USD-christened “global leaders,” I think the Cyber Revolution is an area where our unique blend of ethical, global-oriented business decision making can have a lasting, positive impact. There’s a few areas I’ve found particularly interesting, so I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts and a truckload of links to give some food for thought, and perhaps even generate some Schoultzitian debate.

Google=Dumb (?)

Nicolas Carr, the author of the seminal Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” has expanded the premise of the piece to a book, The Shallows. Basically, he asks if the incessant flow of information available online, and our relentless jumping from page to page, is rewiring our brains and preventing us from the long-term, contemplative thinking necessary for major endeavors like reading War and Peace. (As a personal aside, after reading this article I freaked out that I might be becoming dumb(er) thanks to my whippet fast web surfing. I purchased, and read, the entirety of War and Peace. I’m not sure if doing so saved my brain, but I mention it in every job interview since.) While we all know that widespread internet use hasn’t been around long enough to conclusively (read=scientifically) prove that our brains are being fundamentally rewired by the web, even the idea, coupled with your own personal experience, should be enough to make you reassess how you are reading, thinking, and understanding since the Cyber Revolution. You might decide to take a few hours a week and hide the iPhone, instead challenging your brain to some old school heavy lifting.

Links=Dumb (?)

Mr. Carr also has a fantastic blog, which I highly recommend. Recently, he posted a piece on hyperlinks, “Experiments in delinkification.” He, among others, posited that the ubiquitous hyperlink is both a symptom of, and contributor to, our web-based shorted attention span. The post created quite a dust-up (in internet dork terms) about the worth of mid-sentence links. If you’ve read this far (thanks!), you know I love links. Love them. Nothing upsets me more than when an article references something (anything- be it book, article, work of art, whatever) and fails to provide a link. I agree hyperlinks can create a scattershot reading experience, but it is reader-controlled. Personally, I generally hover over the link to find out where its sending me, and, if interested, open it up in a new tab to review at my leisure (generally when I’m done with the original article). Mr. Carr recommends positioning all relevant links at the end of the write-up, though I think you’ll lose some utility with that compromise. Having it mid-stream creates a mental link (wordplay!) between what you’re currently reading and the new page you’re being sent to. Although I disagree with Mr. Carr’s poor opinion of links, it is another example of how, often without us noticing, the easy availability of information is changing how we learn. In undergrad (lo, those long nine years ago!) I found a certain pleasure in searching though the dusty stacks of the Holy Cross library to find that one book I needed, an experience that is now largely superseded by a quick web search. We’ve replaced passionate persistence with careless ease, but what have we gained- and lost?

Bonus link: Mr. Carr interviewed on the Colbert Report

Extra super bonus link: NPR has a chapter of The Shallows for your perusal

Privacy=Dumb (according to Facebook, maybe?)

I’m on Facebook, and I’m willing to bet you are too. A major concern for the social networking site has always been the privacy of its users, with an oft-heard complaint (heard by me, anyway) being the site’s propensity for forcing you to share info with someone you would rather not share it with (or having that person share a little too much for your liking). Facebook’s privacy policies came to head over the past few weeks, as those policies became ever more byzantine and privavy control functionality more complex. This blog had my favorite graphical analysis of the shift in sharing over time. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, felt the need to answer criticism in a rather bland Washington Post Op-Ed; meanwhile, privacy policies and controls have continued to shift. The debate over what user information Facebook should either force you to share or be able to monetize with advertisers remains far from over. What I really find interesting is that any info Facebook has on its users has been voluntarily submitted to their site for free. With that in mind, do we the users even have a justifiable expectation of privacy? If you upload a picture of yourself binge drinking at work, are negative repercussions Facebook’s fault when your boss (who is in your network) sees it? What’s more, for Facebook to remain a free service, it has to make money somehow. Its one “tangible” resource? The massive amounts of user data that resides on servers Facebook paid for, and users voluntarily submitted.

Privacy concerns aren’t limited to your Farmville needs, of course. As the once wholly unregulated internet becomes more of a shared societal resource, akin to the radiowave spectrum or Antarctica, government regulation and monitoring becomes more and more of a necessity. (Probably.) That, of course, brings with it a whole new set of problems, from the level to which federal agencies should monitor web usage to the degree to which companies should cooperate with national security agencies. The Threat Level blog (another one I really recommend) had a good look at private companies using (or being coerced into using) the National Security Agency’s Einstein systems, which help detect cyber intrusions and then alert the government. In particular, “critical infrastructure” systems, like the power grid and internet itself, are both vital to the nation’s functioning and vulnerable targets- but are largely in private hands. As the government attempts to move into monitoring private networks, basic questions concerning ethics, oversight, accountability, and legal jurisdiction remain unanswered. Ultimately, these are long-term policy concerns that deserve measured, deliberate thought- but in the meantime, the problems at hand continue to grow.

Bonus link: Interesting Discussion of privacy concerns from a “small government” DC think tank

Cyber Threats: Overblown?

Speaking of growing problems, it’s not just privacy that needs to be secured online…it’s everything. Particularly since Google was hacked by probable Chinese actors, the vulnerability of everything online has gained visibility outside of network security circles. (Personal note: I entered those circles six months ago with absolutely no IT background. Suffice it to say I now have strong doubts about anything you consider “secure.”) As people open up more of their lives to the internet,  they are more at risk; somewhat more troubling, as governments grow to depend on web connectivity to get business done, they are more at risk from other nation-states both during times of crisis and (relative) peacetime. However, the nature and extent of even this elemental problem is still up for debate. Literally.

Tomorrow night in DC, Intelligence Squared is hosting a debate on the motion, “The Cyber War Threat has been Grossly Exaggerated.” Some heavy hitters are taking part, including former Director of National Intelligence, VADM (Ret.) Mike McConnell. VADM McConnell bemoans, in particular, the United States’ lack of a cohesive policy on the cyber threat; even action that could be taken now is not, since legal and politic concerns remain. Personally, I think we need to come to terms on some terms first; is cyber espionage the same as Cyber War? Can a line between the two be drawn? My initial response is yes, but things become much murkier when attempting to draw that line. Uploading malware on an adversary’s network, after all, can be seen as an offensive (wordplay!) act, but is it really an act of war? Does it depend on what the malware does? When it’s difficult to discern even what you’re talking about, you know you have an interesting problem on your hands. In this case, it’s a problem that has massive repercussions for the level of government intrusion in citizens’ lives, foreign policy, the nature of warfare, and international finance, just to name a few affected arenas. Problems are, of course, made to be solved- and that’s where we MSGLers come in.

TJ Mayotte was a member of Cohort 41 and is now an analyst for the Office of the Secretary of Defense Damage Assessment Management Office, charged with conducting damage assessments after Cleared Defense Contractors are victims of cyber intrusions. He lives in Elkridge, Maryland and currently blogs here. He enjoys adversarial comments and being longwinded.

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  1. June 7, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Great post, TJ, although you missed a golden opportunity to link to the Holy Cross Library. Glad to know things are going well on the east coast for you. Taking a look at Nicolas Carr’s blog now!

  2. June 7, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    TJ – you probably saw that Saturday’s WSJ Weekend Edition cover story was a debate over the merits of the internet – featuring your man Nicolas Carr saying it’s making us stupid(er) and on the other side, Clay Shikey, author of “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a connected age” – saying its a source of great creativity. You can find that article at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704025304575284973472694334.html?mod=djemITP_h (sorry – no hyper link)
    Mr Shirkey makes the point that with increased access to the tools of self expression, there is obviously more ‘bad’ self expression, but look at the wonders of the things we are finding (and doing) on the web! But I think Mr Carr has a point as well and as usual, I think there is merit in both side – I side with Shirkey though – I still like Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ position that more freedom is good – the challenge is to learn ourselves and to teach others how to best use it. Thanks for your insightful post. Bob

  3. tjmayotte
    June 9, 2010 at 5:10 am

    Bob- Ultimately, I agree with you. I think much of what Mr. Carr is concerned about is typical reactionary fear of new “advances.” However, what I really enjoy about both his original article and follow-up points is that they make us examine some things that came on so fast I, for one, took for them for granted. As Thoreau reminded us, taking some quiet time for contemplation and self-reflection never hurts! (Pond not required.)

  4. Bob
    June 10, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living” – which I don’t fully agree with, but it makes a point. On the other hand, “The overexamined life is not worth living” also makes a good point. Carpe Diem – Pond not required, but it helps….Bob

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