How to mitigate digital harms? First, be very patient (3)

And on to the third and last main question of the Pew/Elon survey. The tough one — ok, smart guy, you got any solutions? Or to quote the original:

“Do you think there are any actions that might successfully be taken to reduce or eradicate potential harms of digital life to individuals’ well-being?”

I’m a pessimist about the harms but an optimist about solutions:

  • Yes, there are interventions that can be made in the coming years to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology.
  • No, there are not interventions that can be made to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology

So, “yes” is the answer here. And finally…

“Please elaborate on your response below about why you do or don’t think there can be actions taken to mitigate potential harms of digital life.”

Finding solutions is always harder than identifying the problems. But digital tech makes this balancing act much trickier, because it’s so pervasive, contagious, insidious, ever-changing and seductive. Elaboration follows.

THERE certainly are actions that can be taken to mitigate harms in our digital lives. The challenge is takeup.

The first and most important of these actions is: educate thyself. The less people know about the technologies they use, the more likely they are to be victimized in some fashion — or constantly confused and frustrated trying to get what they want. The please-clarify items range from misguided beliefs about privacy, like “I’ve got nothing to hide,” to why VPNs are useful and how they work — along with perspective adjustments about which actors pose a real threat to online welfare. Hackers usually top the list, but mainstreamers are more likely to suffer bad compromises at the hands of Facebook or their ISP.

But plenty stands in the way of efforts to raise awareness. Learning about any technology is tough. Digital technologies are especially so not only because they’re mostly hidden from sight, but also because of the retail industry’s big value proposition, ignorance is bliss — whether it be about privacy policies or the details of how services actually function. Consumers have become so accustomed to hearing that their digital life, indeed all of life, must be effortless and convenient in every way that little incentive is left to dig for details — even if doing so might improve their welfare.

What will it take to make mitigating potential harms more appealing?

For individual consumers, it’s going to take more than blaming our digital woes on the Silicon Valley crowd, however culpable they may be. It’s time to look in the mirror and decide for ourselves what we want from the digital life, as we sink deeper. Some may find the incentives they need to conduct their lives differently. But most people who opt for mitigation will need to be influenced by the trickle-down effects of broad social changes, some planned, others unplanned.

In the planned category, one area ripe for change is higher education. On thousands of North American campuses, classroom learning has been radically disrupted by the unfettered use of smartphones and laptops to transport students away from the classroom, away from the instructor, away from the course material. The campus takeover by digital and the ensuing plague of inattention has reached crisis proportions.

One factor that may shine a cold, clear light on this problem is the discovery by parents of the extent to which their money and family resources are being wasted by their college-age kids. Any potentially reformist ideas will, however, have to face the entrenched assumption by administrators, vendors, students and even many educators that more tech in the classroom is always good for business.

In the unplanned category, a misguided regulatory decision taken in December 2017 shows how unintended consequences and lots of bad publicity can promote progressive change. That would be the Pai FCC’s repeal of the Open Internet Order, and with it the rejection of network neutrality as part of the US policy framework for broadband. With the ink barely dry, a storm of protest and threatened legal actions has erupted — confirming that the FCC order was politically shortsighted and likely to backfire on its intended beneficiaries.

This war over Internet gatekeeping, which promises to rage through 2018 and beyond, has had the desirable benefit of making millions of consumers aware of the harms that can be visited on them by their ISP — and what’s at stake in their digital lives when the regulator sees the public interest exclusively through the eyes of the telecom industry. We can reasonably hope that what began as an arcane policy process will prompt lots of skeptical questioning about digital harms and mitigation — whether through advocacy efforts, political action or casual introspection about our digital future. Not an ideal way to promote public education, but definitely the silver lining in Pai’s perverse gesture to “Internet freedom.”

(For more details, and some source material, on the Pai FCC’s eradication of net neutrality, see my Dec 14 post, Net neutrality isn’t the endgame.)