The Tyranny of Convenience

“I just boarded an international @JetBlue flight. Instead of scanning my boarding pass or handing over my passport, I looked into a camera before being allowed down the jet bridge,” MacKenzie Fegan tweeted last week. “Did facial recognition replace boarding passes, unbeknownst to me? Did I consent to this?”

The quick answer? Yes and no.

Yes, facial recognition did replace boarding passes for international travelers in some U.S. airports recently, and — if the Trump administration has its way — it will be the default check-in method in many more airports by 2020. And no, Fegan did not overtly consent to this specific use of facial recognition. Nor did anyone else, presumably. In a subsequent tweet, JetBlue told Fegan that passengers can “opt out of this procedure,” suggesting that JetBlue considers consent to be implied by default.

If we take the airline’s word for it, JetBlue assumed that its passengers would find biometric check-in more convenient than the conventional method.

Part of the answer as to why JetBlue might have made that assumption — that people would actually want their faces to serve as a boarding pass, instead of a piece of paper or their smartphone — appears in a press release JetBlue linked to in its response thread with Fegan.

Back in November, when biometric boarding was introduced at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, JetBlue’s senior vice president of customer experience was quoted praising the technology as “a testament to the airline’s ongoing work to create a personal, helpful, and simple experience.” If we take the airline’s word for it, JetBlue assumed that its passengers would find biometric check-in more convenient than the conventional method.

In the ongoing and growing opposition to the seemingly dystopian world technology companies are building, convenience is often overlooked. But it’s convenience, and the way convenience is currently created by tech companies and accepted by most of us, that is key to why we’ve ended up living in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.

Convenience is signing up to a social media platform to keep in touch with friends and family and keep abreast of current events, and then discovering that the personal information you’ve been required to upload to enable your account has been used to micro-target you with disinformation.

Convenience is buying a digital assistant for your home to make hands-free information searches easier, and later finding out that employees of the company that makes it are able to listen to the commands you’ve been giving it — or that its recordings of the ambient sounds of your home have been mailed to someone you don’t know.

Convenience is downloading a weather app to check whether you need to pack an umbrella, only to later realize that the app’s code makes it easy for someone to track your movements with such specificity that no amount of anonymization of the data would hide that it was you entering a Planned Parenthood, or riding along with the mayor of New York City.

Convenience is watching one video online by someone who thinks the world is flat, and tumbling down a rabbit hole of aggressive and increasingly swivel-eyed conspiracy videos until you end up believing that Hillary Clinton is a lizard from another planet. Better yet, convenience is sitting your child down in front of a supposedly child-friendly video only to discover a while later that the same autoplay function has dug up videos of their favorite cartoon characters being mutilated.

Convenience is driving a car for a ride-hail company because it promises flexible hours, only to find yourself making less than minimum wage and subject to phantom price surge promises, the absolutism of personal star ratings, and constant surveillance, including messages that prompt you to get back to driving like a notification that your phone is unmounted.

Most importantly, convenience is a value, and one we hold personally.

Convenience is booking a flight online quickly and cheaply, only to discover upon arriving at the airport that you are required to subject yourself to a facial recognition “procedure,” where your image is captured and automatically checked against a federal database, affording you little recourse if it happens to mismatch, in order to board your plane and embark on your trip.

Convenience is allowing the “if, then” logic of an algorithm to shape the music you hear, the books you read, the information you see, the news you read, the things you watch, and the people you interact with.

Convenience is the powerful marketing tool deployed by utopian evangelists to describe a world of total ease and seamless interactions that deliberately masks a frantic race to monopolize a near-bottomless well of behavioral and biometric data. It is the device used to reduce our personal agency, strip us of personal choice, and ultimately render us helpless to the terms and conditions to which we have unwittingly clicked “I agree.”

Most importantly, convenience is a value, and one we hold personally. Ultimately, this is why it keeps winning, outweighing the more abstract ideas like privacy, democracy, or equality, all of which remain merely issues for most of us. That’s why Fegan’s encounter matters. Her moment of realization at the airport is one we will all face one day: the instant when we realize that the convenience we value is not only inseparable from those issues, but that, taken far enough, that they can’t exist simultaneously. Convenience doesn’t simply supercede privacy or democracy or equality in many of our lives. It might also destroy them.

*This article originally appeared at OneZero on Medium.com

Die Eensaamheid Epidemie

Ek het onlangs op hierdie onderhoud afgekom wat Matt D’Avella met Johann Hari gevoer het oor sy boek “Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope“. In hierdie onderhoud raak hulle aan vele punte wat so in ons hedendaagse samelewing ingegrein is dat dit soms vreemd is om te dink daar is ou oplossing vir hierdie nuwe probleme van ons tyd.

Wat helder uitstaan, en ook die onderliggende toon is, is dat mense mekaar nodig het. Die mensdom het die slimste en sterkste spesie geraak omdat die mens geleer het om saam te staan deur moeilike tye. Die probleem is egter dat in die afgelope paar jaar het die mens hom en haarself al meer probeer individualiseer en onttrek van die samelewing in die bree. Al meer dinge kan afgelewer word en sonder veel moeite.

Depressie is ‘n siekte wat al meer mense elke jaar byt en dit lyk asof die oplossing gedeeltelik is om by mense uit te kom en die te isoleer nie. Johann noem dat in die Weste as iemand hartseer is en gelukkig wil wees doen hulle iets vir hulself, en in die Ooste as iemand hartseer is en gelukkig wil voel doen hulle iets vir iemand anders. Die Ooste se depressie vlakke is heelwat laer as die in die Weste.

Luister gerus na die onderhoud en dink self verder oor wat dit in jou los maak…

Dit het my laat besef dat alleenheid of die beter woord, eensaamheid ‘n ding is! Volgens Thrive Union sê 40% van mense vandag dat hulle eensaam is, teenoor slegs 20% in die 1980’s. Engeland het ‘n Departement van Eensaamheid in hulle parlement gestig. Eensaamheid is ‘n indikator van die mens wat die behoefte na gemeenskap of sosialisering uitdruk. Thrive Union lig in hulle video van dieselfde redes uit wat die toename in eensaamheid aanhelp; tegnologie en individualisme. Deur in goeie verhoudings te belê kan die gevolge van eensaamheid merkwaardig verminder en selfs verwyder. Wat ook interessant is, is dat verhoudings wat eensaamheid teenwerk nie eenrigting verhoudings is waar daar net gekry word nie, maar verhoudings is wat wederkerig is, ja, waar daar gekry word, maar ook waar daar ruimte is om te gee.

Die Engelse posdiens het ‘n kreatiewe manier gekry om eensaamheid aan te spreek. Ek dink graag saam met julle… Hoe gaan ons eensaamheid in ons gemeenskappe aanspreek? Wat kan jy in jou onmiddelike omgewing doen om eensaamheid aan te spreek?

 

Digital Minimalism and God (Or, is Social Media Undermining Religion?

Those who know Martin Luther King Jr.’s story well, know that January 27, 1956, was a pivotal date for the young minister.

Only one month earlier, still a newcomer in town, King, to his surprise, was elected to run the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) formed in response to Rosa Parks’s arrest.

As King’s Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David Garrow recalls, King “mistakenly presumed that the boycott [organized by the MIA] would be relatively brief,” but he was wrong. A series of tense negotiating sessions made it clear that the city was reluctant to give up any ground.

As the bus boycott dragged on, and more attention was turned toward its leader, the situation became tense. According to Garrow:

“The increased news coverage had brought with it a rising tide of anonymous, threatening phone calls to his home and office, and King had begun to wonder whether his involvement was likely to end up costing him, his wife, Coretta, and their two-month-old daughter, Yolanda, much more than he had initially imagined.”

On January 26th, King was arrested and jailed for supposedly driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone. The next day, after his release, he received another round of anonymous threatening phone calls. He tried to sleep, but couldn’t, so he returned to his kitchen table to make a cup of coffee and confront his mounting anxiety and fear.

As King recalled in a sermon given a decade later at the Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church:

“And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it…I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage.”

Then, clarity:

“And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’”

Garrow describes this scene as one of the most important moments of King’s life.

* * * *

I first encountered this story in a book by Mike Erwin and Raymond Kethledge about solitude, and then expanded on it in Chapter 4 of Digital Minimalism, where I discuss what’s lost when we deploy devices to avoid every moment of time alone with our own thoughts.

For many in our modern context, this observation that reflection is critical might be novel, especially given the steady refrain of “connectivity = good” that we’ve been fed for the last decade. But to the spiritual, like King, it’s deeply familiar.

Common to many different religions is an emphasis on contemplative practices — turning one’s focus inward in search of transcendent insight (what Karen Armstrong calls “intimations of the divine.”)

Sometimes these practices are structured, as in the Islamic Salat, Buddhist mindfulness meditation, or, as is familiar around my academic home, Jesuit imaginative prayer. And sometimes they’re unstructured, like King’s experience at the kitchen table. Regardless of form, contemplative reflection is often intertwined with spiritual life.

I’m bringing this all up because it provides background for a surprising claim that’s been growing online in recent years, and which seems self-evidently worthy of unpacking: social media might be accidentally undermining religion.

* * * *

I stumbled across this growing tension between social media and religion in an admittedly ignoble manner: checking media hits for Digital Minimalism. I was surprised to discovered the amount of attention the book has started receiving in religious circles.

But as I looked closer at the coverage, the surprise dissipated. Though there are many ways in which tools like Twitter or Instagram might work against (or in some cases with) the traditional objectives of religion, the issue that kept arising is the way in which the ubiquitous distraction they provide corrodes the contemplative life.

Courage, reassurance, revelation: these require a quiet mind capable of apophatic insight. One of the unintentional consequences of innovating an algorithmically-optimized, always-present source of attention-snagging noise is that this quiet disappears.

The religious are increasingly concerned with this consequence as they notice more of their fellow adherents stumbling around in a state of unmoored anxiety, but it’s an effect that’s clearly important beyond just formal faith, as it gets at something fundamental about human flourishing in a hard world: if you’re constantly escaping, you’ll eventually end up lost.

At some point in Digital Minimalism, I remark that “humans are not wired to be constantly wired.” But perhaps a more vivid formulation of the stakes is to wonder (with a dash of anachronistic hyperbole) what would have happened to Martin Luther King Jr. at that kitchen table sixty years ago if, instead of turning inward to find wisdom, he had been distracted by his mentions?

The original blogpost of Cal Newport can be found here.