Don’t Be a Slave to Technology

It might come as a surprise to some people to hear me say that I am not a slave to technology – after all, I’m a self-described “computer geek.” You’d think, therefore, that I walk around with an iPhone or Blackberry (or both!) strapped to my chest at all times, checking email and looking up information on-line everywhere I go.

However, you couldn’t be farther from the truth.

While it’s true that I am a major computer geek, and I would love to have (say) a nice little netbook for looking up information, sending email, writing blog posts, etc., the fact of the matter is that it’s because I’m a computer geek that I’m not a slave to technology.

Because I’m confident about it, I don’t allow it to control me – I control it.

For example, I know many people with mobile email who are, quite frankly, addicted to it (think: crackberry). They’re always checking email – all the time – no matter where they are. Even if I had a mobile email device (which I don’t), I wouldn’t be checking email all the time. As it is, I don’t check email often, even when I’m at my computer. I’m confident enough with the technology to know that I don’t need to answer every single email at the moment it comes in – that I don’t need to be “on-line” all the time. I control the technology – I use it when I want to, not the other way around.

Another example is when the power goes out – for people who are slaves to technology, to computers, the Internet, email, Twitter, social networking, what have you, the power going out is like having their “fix” cut off – they don’t know what to do. Without email, chat, or whatever, they’re lost. They’re so badly enslaved that they don’t know what to do when they are “freed” from it, for whatever reason.

As for me, even though I spend my entire day at the computer (and often much of the evening, too), writing code, answering emails, being online, writing blog posts like this one and so on – when the power goes out, I just shrug, grab a book from my bookshelf, and go read. Or, if it’s dark, I’ll go for a drive, or a walk, or just plain go to bed.

I control the technology around me – it doesn’t control me.

For many people today, the opposite is true. It’s worth it to sit and really take a look at yourself and see whether you are one of those people – whether you’re a slave to technology. Even in today’s connected world, it’s important to be able to just leave it all behind sometimes, to just “let go.” It’s the difference between being controlled and being in control.

Clearly Stupid

Take a look at this ad I saw just the other day:

This has to be the single stupidest thing that has come about since the increased airline security policy went into effect after 9/11. It’s a card that supposedly will let you get through airport security faster – something about being “precleared.”

If you think about what that means for a little bit, little liberty-alarm bells should start going off in your head. This card effectively creates a new “class” of people – people who are “precleared.” People who are (supposedly) “safe.” Everyone else – and right now, unless you have one of these new cards, that includes you – is “untrusted.” Everyone else is “presumed guilty.”

Let me rephrase that – YOU are presumed guilty.

In effect, this is segregation – in the year 2008. Forget upper, middle, and lower classes – now we’ve got “precleared” and “possible terrorist.” And unlike the traditional social classes (upper, middle, and lower), you can’t work your way up to the new “precleared” class by yourself – you have to be “allowed” in.

“So what?” you might ask, “if I don’t want to be discriminated against, I’ll just sign up for the card.” Fair enough – but what if you are rejected? What are the criteria for being “precleared,” anyway?

What if you can’t sign up for this card because of the church you belong to? Or because of campaign donations you’ve made in the past? Or because of who you work for? Or because of your publicly stated beliefs?

Never mind that the whole idea of “precleared” is just plain bad security practice. (There are 3 links there, folks – read them all to understand the problem with “precleared” cards.)

Travel within the United States is supposed to be free and clear – we have no border posts between states, we don’t have to show papers to travel within our own country… or at least, we didn’t use to. Now we do – we have to show our new “national ID” – the specter of REAL ID rears its ugly head – and what your national ID says about you might determine whether you’re asked to step aside for “special” screening.

Personally, I’m going to be very disappointed if we just roll over and accept these sorts of things – as it appears we are doing. We have gone from the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” to the “Land of the Fearful and the Home of the Sheepish.”

Pathetic.

On “An Inconvenient Truth”

I finally got around to watching “An Inconvenient Truth” tonight, and I have to say, I’m all riled up.

Stormy WeatherThere can be no doubt that climate change is real and is caused by human activity. That’s not what I’m all riled up about. I’m all riled up about what we can do about it and more worryingly, is it already too late?

One of the first things to really “shock” me in the film was the graph of the world’s population. I suppose I’d always “known” it, but I’d never really “known” it, if you follow me. Our population isn’t growing exponentially, it’s growing in some way that defies my knowledge of mathematics to explain it. It’s more like a straight line rising straight up than any sort of curve. In the 1950s there were only a little more than 2 billion people in the world – now we are over 6 billion. In another 30 years there will be close to 9 billion.

That is one hell of a lot of people.

What is perhaps more disturbing is the percentage of the population that is “industrialized.” Because that percentage is rising at an astronomical rate as well. And if you consider that the more “industrialized” a people are, the more energy they consume, well… you don’t need a degree in economic theory to understand basic supply & demand. With that many people, demand for energy will go up a lot. And there is no way our supply can keep up – even if there were vast, untouched resources on the same scale as the Middle East, it wouldn’t be enough to keep up.

Without change, we are going to consume more and more energy. As supply dwindles, and as demand increases, economic pressure will push us to consume every last bit of energy possible – and to hell with the consequences.

We will put the future of the human race – the future of our children – at risk, just for a few more years of energy, of the lifestyle we’ve gotten used to, that we’re “comfortable” with. And this risk is far more than the risk we used to be afraid of at the dawn of the Nuclear Age.

There are only 3 possibilities to deal with this problem:

  1. Reduce the population (thus decreasing demand)
  2. Relocate the population (I’m talking about space colonization)
  3. Invent new technologies to make better use of the limited energy we posses

Let’s address them in turn.

Number 1 is going to happen if we don’t do something yesterday. If things continue as they have gone in the last 50 years, we will see mass starvation and massive death all across the globe. One way or another, there will be fewer people around. But it won’t be a pretty sight.

The Moon and some electric power linesNumber 2 is my personal choice. Space colonization brings with it the ability to harvest energy from the sun – or even terraform other planets and use resources there instead of bringing them from Earth. At least then, if we screw up the Earth so bad, we ourselves won’t totally die out.

Number 3 is starting to happen – although still too slow in many people’s opinions. And new technology can only take us so far – we can only squeeze so much out of a limited resource, no matter how efficient we make the technology. Without deep, radical, fundamental changes in our understanding of how to get energy, we will run out.

When you look at it like that, all 3 choices seem pretty dismal. But the great thing is that we don’t have to choose just one – we can take the best part of each solution and try to use them all at once, and maybe together we can do something about it.

But there’s a dark side to all this. To make a difference, we all really have to do it together. I mean everyone, everywhere, every nation, every city, everyone. We can’t do it piecemeal. It can’t just be one or two or even three countries – even if they are the biggest polluters or energy consumers. It has got to be everyone. Because our human nature demands it – if you have to restrict yourself, change your lifestyle, you’re going to resent your neighbor if he (or she, or they) don’t have to do the same – if they get to keep their lifestyle, if they don’t have to make sacrifices like you do. Our human nature demands that we all give equally, or else none of us will give. (This is, of course, a form of the “tragedy of the commons.”)

And we will all have to give. This sort of change isn’t going to be easy. I have a favorite little quote from one of my favorite movies, “The Lion King,” that goes something like this:

“Change is good…”

“…Yeah, but it’s not easy!”

Truer words were never said.

But we must change. It’s not going to be painless – let’s get that right out in the open right now. It’s going to hurt. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. That’s the way change is. And like most major paradigm-shifting changes, you can’t really see how things are going to be until you’re on the other side – and so will it be with this change. We don’t know what the future will bring, or even what it will be like. But we know we have to make the change. Because we do know what the future will be like if we don’t change.

It is not going to be easy. But it will be good.

Once we are on the other side, things will be better. We’ll have the technology, the policies, the systems in place and it’ll all be easy. Because once you’ve made the change, and it’s over with, well, it’s no longer change anymore – it’s just the way things are.

As the movie credits rolled, I was reminded of another quote that I really like – maybe you’ve even heard it before. I think that it is just as appropriate now as it was when it was first uttered:

For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

John F. Kennedy
Address at American University
Washington, D.C., 1963

(Image credit to muha… and Kliefi for their Creative Commons licensed images.)

Camera = Terrorist

If you have any doubts that we are becoming more and more paranoid, this article should put your doubts to rest.

Photographers have had it hard ever since 9/11 – everywhere they go they’re being harassed, having their cameras confiscated, being told they can’t take photos here or there (often after the fact)… and frankly, it’s all just nonsense. It’s clear-cut paranoia – bordering on paranoid schizophrenia, actually. And this is our society which is paranoid, not just the individuals anymore.

It’s actually illegal in many places now to take photos of certain buildings in major cities – because they are “federal” buildings or “potential terrorist targets” or some other such nonsense. Yet it is perfectly OK to sit somewhere and just look at the buildings, building up a mental picture of them in your mind – or maybe even to sit and sketch the building. But take a photo? Nope. In fact in many places you’re likely to get arrested for doing that (and don’t think for a moment that the buildings have signs saying “no photos” so you know not to take one!).

What really concerns me is how Orwellian this all sounds. Let me give you some quotes from the article:

“We’re not talking about snooping or profiling,” Luttrell said. “The best thing the average citizen can do is to be on the lookout. Report situations to us and let us sift through them.”

Uhhh… actually, you are talking about snooping and profiling. Profile #1: people with big cameras could be terrorists and should be watched. And what “situations” are people supposed to report, anyway? Do we really want our law enforcement swamped with overwhelming reports of “I saw a funny-looking guy?” Seriously, is that something we want police following up on? If they did, they’d never get around to solving real crime – they’d spend all their time following ordinary people.

“Every arrest ticket written in 24 hours by each of those agencies will be reviewed to see if any of those people, even those with minor traffic charges, might have any connection to any possible terrorist activity lurking in the region,” Shular said.

In other words, police are going to be digging through your entire life every time you get stopped for a tail light out, or for speeding, or for anything, really. Your whole life is under scrutiny now for the most minor offenses. How much of a step is it from only snooping when you get stopped for minor offenses to just snooping on your life all the time?

In the meantime, officials are asking the public to report any suspicious activity to the sheriff’s office.

I absolutely hate statements like this. What, exactly, defines “suspicious” in this context?? I challenge anyone to come up with a satisfactory definition of “suspicious.” I assert that it’s not possible – what constitutes “suspicious” in one context could be perfectly normal in another. And of course the definition varies from person to person.

Never mind that when you start asking the public to call in “suspicious” activity, you open yourself up to lots and lots of vindictive reports. Have an argument with someone? Call them in as being suspicious. You guarantee that they’ll be grabbed by federal agents in black masks at 2am and kept in confinement for a week or so while they check him/her out.

Hmmm… does that sort of activity sound familiar to anyone?

“We may get information that doesn’t pan out to be true at all,” Shular said. “But that one bit of information that someone calls in could make all the difference.”

No, it won’t. Take a probability class here people. The probability is just too low. Sure, the potential gains are high, but like anything else in life, this is a trade-off. You’re trading people’s privacy and personal lives for a very, very, very, very small probability of possibly, maybe, potentially catching someone doing something bad.

It’s just not worth it.

A Really Good Essay on “America’s Most Dangerous Enemy”

This post from Fabius Maximus on “America’s Most Dangerous Enemy” is really good.

It is probably one of the best essays I have ever read on the subject – clearly laid out, with citations and a clear structure. It brings to mind my high school lessons on “how to write an essay,” that’s how good it is.

And, of course, the points it makes are excellent as well.

If you’ve read some of my other posts recently and you’ve gotten outraged and want to make a difference, well, let me suggest this: get someone to read this article. You might just finally get someone to “see the light,” as it were.