Today most of us take in and assimilate vast amounts of information about events in other parts of the world that no ordinary individual would have been aware of a mere 55 years ago.
On May 13, 1897, when Guglielmo Marconi sent the first ever wireless communication over the Bristol Channel, the message read, “Are you ready?” He most likely never dreamed that one day we would be video chatting over cellular phones and hand held electronic devices with our friends and family around the world on a regular basis.
In the beginning of the 20th Century, radio communications began providing ordinary citizens with a peek into world events. Then, in 1927 television entered the scene, first in Britain and then in America. During World War II, television broadcasting was shut down in the Allied nations due to fears that the Nazis would use it as a propaganda tool. Shortly after the War, the United States re-established civilian television broadcasting and by the late 1950s television was in many homes in America, Britain, France, the USSR, and Japan. By the mid 1960s, television became established in China and other parts of the developing world. The Vietnam War (1959-1975) was the first war to be broadly televised, bringing the horrors of the battlefield into the living rooms of average citizens.
Fast forward to June 8th, 2010, when Wael Ghonim, a 29-year-old Google marketing executive in Dubai, vented his shock and horror over the death of a young Egyptian he had never met by creating a Facebook page in the young man’s honor, “We Are All Khaled Said”, and helped fuel a revolution.
Today social media brings live streamed events and reports from around the globe. Within moments of the June 2013 earthquake in the Philippines, donations and support began flooding in. Reports of landslides in Uganda, forest fires in the USA, flooding in Nigeria, typhoons, hurricanes and other natural disasters are shared far and wide through the power of social media. Likewise, we see the devastating effects of drone strikes and other terrorist acts in video broadcasts on our smart phones and tablets.
Beyond the revolutions and disasters, social media and technology are now connecting us with each other on a more intimate level. We are privy to heartwarming everyday events like the love of John Unger and his dog Schoep. After a friend posted a photo of John carrying his beloved arthritic dog into Lake Superior, it went viral. This July, nearly 400 thousand Facebook fans from around the world mourned Schoep’s death at the age of 20.
Most recently it was reported that 150 million images are being shared each day over Snapchat, a photo messaging application that enables users to take photos, record videos, add text or drawings and send them to a list of recipients. A recent study shows that Americans, on average, spend 16 minutes of every hour on social networking sites, putting the U.S. ahead of the United Kingdom (13 minutes) and Australia (14 minutes). What are we sharing and talking about with friends the world over? Everything from what we had for dinner, to lamenting the breakup of relationships, and the first day on our new job; from quips of 4 year olds, to “Stuff My Dad Says.”
All this access to each other via high-tech tools carries a price – not only financially, but in terms of our individual privacy. Yes, you could say the world has shrunk when you consider that we can not only Facetime, Google Hangout and Snapchat with each other across the globe; but also in terms of what information is available about us as individuals. Google and Facebook enable companies to target their advertising to your preferences based on what you search, read, post and like.
Employers are routinely using social media to check out applicants and to monitor their employees. A May 2012 Gartner report predicted that by 2015, sixty percent of companies will be monitoring employee’s social media use for security breaches. Recently, US Major League Baseball’s investigators used an arsenal of high- tech tools to collect evidence from Facebook, BlackBerry instant messages, and texts to persuade a dozen players to accept 50 game suspensions for their ties to a clinic that provides performance enhancing drugs to athletes.
The leaks by Edward Snowden, the former USA National Security Agency (NSA) contractor turned whistleblower, opened average citizens eyes to the massive amount of information that is being gathered by governments around the world. According to Snowden, the NSA reportedly keeps trillions of telephone calls, live chats, text messages, and emails in their databases that can be accessed by the use of simple screens that allow an analyst to enter an email address or an IP address and listen to conversations, read emails, look at browsing histories or Google search terms. Snowden’s whistleblowing brought unprecedented attention to Britain’s largest spy agency GCHQ, and the Tempora surveillance programme, a project that gives the agency access to the fibre-optic cables that carry the world’s phone calls and web traffic throughout the UK. Germans also learned that their e-mails, text messages and phone calls are being gathered daily and shared with the NSA. At the 21st annual DEF CON, the world’s largest hacking conference held in Las Vegas this August, workshops focused on civil liberties, corporate and governmental spying and ethics.
Beyond unplugging, how do you protect your privacy?
First, of course, remember that cyberspace is mostly not private and check yourself before hitting that send button. Beyond that, check out the free software resources available through the Free Software Foundation (www.fsf.org) to find out about non proprietary software for searching the web and encrypting programs that are run on your own computer, not a server where information might be saved before encrypting it.
Do you make frequent purchases over the Internet? Rather than use your bank card directly, use a service such as PayPal to help protect your information. Or, if you are ready to bypass major financial institutions whenever possible, consider using a cryptocurrency wallet such as Litecoin, Bitcoin or Feathercoin. Cryptocurrency is a type of digital currency that is based on cryptography (secret code). Cryptocurrency uses algorithm data encryption for security. You can find out more about cryptocurrency and other alternative currencies at www.bitcoinmagazine.com
And what to do about all those vast amounts of information weare taking in and assimilating?
If you find yourself getting depressed or outraged by what you’re reading on Facebook or watching on your iPad, recall how Wael Ghonim turned his outrage into activism. Or, turn it off and take a walk or go hug a loved one.
Unplug from the electronic devices for a while and enjoy the people and places right in front of you. Make an effort to have a real conversation with a live person that you can reach out and touch. Switch off the phone at dinner time, stop checking your email when you are sitting on the bus, and post less frequent Facebook updates. It’ll be tough at first, but psychologists have found that the fundamental difference between happy and unhappy people is loving, social relationships. Spending time with family and friends is essential for happiness. If you are able, make a date to meet those special friends or family members in person using the advances in technology that enable us to fly across the globe in hours or days instead of traveling by ship for weeks or months. Tweet that!