I always have to explain to my smartwatch that I do my cardio a little later on Sundays. It’s humorous, but also creepy.
Technology has benefited us in tremendous ways, from monitoring our health to facilitating communication with loved ones. On the other hand, technology has also given companies and devices incredible access into our lives. It borderlines on obtrusive at times – exhibit A, my watch on Sunday morning when I’m trying to catch some extra Zzz’s.
The modern conveniences of our tech toys would be hard to live without and I’m not necessarily suggesting we rid ourselves of them altogether.
However, the answer as to whether it’s a good or bad thing tech knows so much about us isn’t so simple.
Weighing the pros and cons
Think about this: Facebook has the capability to put up the same travel ads to everyone living in the same house, making it more likely that the household talks about the destination over dinner.
Now, this could be a good thing, as a tailored vacation advertisement may be just what the family or group of roommates want. It could even lead to the experience of a lifetime (scuba diving in Florida, anyone?). Indeed, targeted advertising can solve problems and bring us the products and services we want more quickly.
But there is a darker side to this, beyond the fact that it may be weird that Facebook or another site knows you’ve been thinking about going to Thailand or somewhere else. Such technology could be manipulating the way we live.
A study published in the Harvard Business Review proves targeted ads can even change how we think about ourselves. When researchers showed study participants an ad for a luxury watch they said was specifically targeted to them, participants believed themselves to be more sophisticated after seeing the ad. That’s pretty strange.
So, clearly there are pros and cons here. What’s needed is a better — and healthier — way forward.
Is it safe that tech has all this information about us?
As Julie Bort, a tech reporter for Business Insider, writes, “when you use Google, you are making a deal. You get to use services like Gmail, Drive, search, YouTube, and Google Maps for free. In exchange, you agree to share information about yourself.”
This isn’t a bad tradeoff for most. If you’re a parent, you get to see ads for children’s clothing and toys you may need. If you run a business, you’ll encounter ads for tools and services to make your business more efficient.
Isn’t this a good thing?
The answer is yes and no.
Google and other sites can deduce a lot of information about you when you use their “free services” (they profit massively from our data). Such info includes your name, location, phone number and so on. That’s actually great if you need to find a nearby eatery or store, or get help if your car breaks down.
But it’s also potentially dangerous.
The most obvious reason is that sophisticated hackers constantly break into such sites and steal personal information. It’s estimated that 25 million Google and Yahoo accounts are being sold online. That’s rather alarming.
Also, it can’t be lost that it’s dangerous for such data to be held in the hands of a few behemoth tech companies. As Maggie Kuhn, the famous elder rights activist, once said, “Power should not be concentrated in the hands of so few, and powerlessness in the hands of so many.”
What’s the solution?
This piece isn’t meant to scare anyone off from using technology. Modern advancements enable us to live happier, more fulfilling lives. We can order gifts for faraway friends and family through Amazon, stay updated on current issues via Twitter, and donate to charities we support with the click of a button.
For example, in healthcare, the positives of technology are incredible. Big data and predictive analytics provide crucial insights for identifying disease risks and prevention measures. Scientists are even working on nanobots that could be the key to killing cancer.
Technology improves lives, without a doubt.
What’s needed, though, is a way to eliminate the unhealthy and unsafe aspects of technology’s access to our lives. This requires that we all be more aware.
For example, to conserve our privacy, we can limit what search engines like Google know about us by doing things like pausing location history and turning off ad personalization. When we look at ads on sites like Facebook, we must step back and realize they’ve been targeted directly to us. Other steps to protect our personal information include limiting what we share about ourselves on social media, turning on private browsing, and using a variety of passwords.
In short, we should enjoy and take advantage of all the benefits tech brings us, while also taking steps to control how much access they have to our information.
The good news is that technology may actually put us back in control of our data. For instance, decentralization of goods and services through the blockchain — the technology behind Bitcoin — may give us full control over what we share with others, providing anonymity and security we haven’t yet seen in the digital age.
Bottom line, we must value our personal data and preserve our privacy. Then, and only then will we reap the benefits of the digital age – yes – even those benefits disguised as pesky reminders that beep way too early on Sunday morning.