Game Theory 

Some people resist the digital life

Some people resist the digital life. Others embrace it. I throw myself at emerging technologies with the reckless abandon of a drunken teenager.

Though woefully undecorated, my Mahncke Park bungalow boasts six personal computers and hundreds of digital-media disks. Preparing for the unlikely possibility that my home and work offices might simultaneously burst into flame, I store crucial data files in a thimble-sized flash drive worn underneath my shirt.

My friend Jennifer rolls her eyes when she notices the data necklace poking out from beneath my collar. She has some crazy idea that the 21st-century equivalent of the pocket protector might alienate potential romantic interests. “Don’t. Wear. That. On. Your. Date. Tonight.” she warns.

I am an unapologetic computer nerd. When Apple someday announces new cerebral implants that will make it possible to directly integrate the human brain with our global information networks, I’ll be one of the first in line to test out the new technology.

I mention these personal details to contextualize the following warning.

Computers are extremely dangerous tools. If we are not thoughtful about how we use technology, our reliance on computers threatens to dramatically weaken — and even enslave — human society.

This is not hyperbole.

Computers make mistakes, and they do so with increasing frequency. Consider the case of electronic mail.

As the internet grows in reach and complexity, machines that deliver the mail (a.k.a. “mail servers”) are choking under a rising tide of messages. In theory, such systems are supposed to notify senders and recipients of communication failure. In practice, messages regularly vanish into thin air without alerting human beings at all. The sender assumes that her message was received. The recipient remains clueless.

Imagine the incalculable cost to human relationships that stems from such a simple glitch. Employees miss deadlines. Doctors fail to receive test results in time. Family members nurse bruised feelings. Projects stall before they begin. Budding romance wilts on the vine.

Ask any system administrator if this is an exaggeration. She will confirm that messages are dropped all the time in our networked world.

Computers also lie. Not intentionally and with malice, but because they are programmed with the wrong information. For example, the personal-finance dossiers maintained by credit giants such as Equifax are notoriously unreliable. According to a recent report by the National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups, nearly 80 perecent of consumer credit reports contain some sort of factual inaccuracies. One-fourth of all reports contained serious errors that could lead to denial of home and small business loans.

“Come now,” you say reproachfully. “Everyone has the legal right to view and appeal his or her own credit report. By law, American consumers are entitled to see these reports once a year for free.”

Good point. If you haven’t looked at your own credit records recently, you should order a free copy as soon as you’ve finished reading this week’s issue.

Unfortunately, in the Kafkaesque world of consumer credit, the burden to prove one’s innocence rests squarely on the shoulders of the injured consumer. If you need to appeal an item on your report, be prepared to spend hours — even days — sorting things out.

Many leading credit bureaus erect an impenetrable wall between themselves and captive consumers. Refusing voice and email inquiries, they limit all contact to non-interactive snail mail.

Even after scaling the wall, imagine what might happen if your claims contradict those of your creditor. On one side of the argument, there is your spoken testimony about your financial history. On the other side, in all its digital glory, is the unimpeachable allure of the creditor’s computer.

When it becomes your word against that of the computer, who do you think will win?

Computers are ubiquitous in daily life, and we are granting them ever greater authority over our personal and professional existence. Like human beings, they make mistakes and they lie. Unlike human beings, they radiate an aura of truth and certainty. This myth of infallibility is particularly risky.

In most situations — even when these deceitful and mistake-prone machines damage our lives — we lack the power to challenge them. If we’re lucky, we might be able to plead our case with the first tier of technical support. But that doesn’t get us very far.

We can and must reign in these out-of-control machines. We can do this by propagating clear-headed consideration of these issues to our friends and loved ones. By encouraging this most basic form of technical literacy, we can undermine the oppressive myth of technological perfection.

Just don’t talk about it on the first date.

Aaron Delwiche also writes about digital culture in his web log: Delwiche.livejournal.com.

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