Educating an Entire Culture on How Things Actually Work

I spent some free time this past weekend going to see Oliver Stone’s latest, Snowden, the wild tale of a talented technologist who trades his stable life for something larger than himself. Whatever you believe about Snowden, he put himself at great risk of peril and at the kind of personal expense that most of us won’t ever experience and cannot even imagine.

I’m not writing about this to debate whether what he did was right or wrong, or to deliberate on the political landscape surrounding such a choice. I’m writing about this because, like it or not, this is a pivotal story that will resonate long into the future, no doubt shaping our culture through institutional policy and procedure but also, and arguably more importantly, the way the average bear understands things like information, the Internet and the rules (or lack thereof) under which the hidden machinery behind all of it operates.

This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as we have only seen this story begin to unfold. In time, the weight of it will become more and more apparent to more and more of us and connect to other contexts most of us would rather not be informed of. Ignorance is, after all, bliss and privacy is something everyone talks about, claims to protect but does so in only clumsy and uninformed ways.

edward snowdenWe have only ourselves to blame for being so ignorant and technically illiterate. Most of us use the Internet in all of its forms without thinking much about it, outside of how to create appearances that represent some imaginary image of who we wish to project. Why don’t more people use it to learn more about it?

For example, how hard is it to learn to use encryption methods that ensure our communications are private or learn how VPNs are effective and isolate us from such prying eyes and/or what kinds of devices exist that can help protect our children by keeping their online activities private?

We might have a healthy or unhealthy sense of paranoia sized in direct proportion to our ignorance. We might blather on at the dinner party or company water cooler about this or that soundbite we heard here and there while 99.99% of us knows next-to-nothing about how this all actually works.

No one from within any sector, public or private, regardless of well-intended convictions, has made a dent in our overall ignorance. Training anyone to use strong passwords, change them regularly and not make blatant missteps is like talking to a wall. Metaphorically speaking, we want to ride in the car but don’t care much about how it works, ever wonder why it is such an amazing machine and/or how many ways it is fatally flawed.

Thanks to Mr. Snowden, we even have a new excuse: “Even if I change my password, the government can still read and listen in on my stuff, anyway.”

The complacent go marching on.

As it is, the vast majority of users will not ever understand that there are, indeed, a countless number of ways to use these tools discreetly and with something more aligned with what we call ‘privacy”. It only requires curiosity, inquiry and mettle. Qualities our Western culture seems to be sadly, but successfully, breeding out of the larger gene pool.

edward snowdenSuch is the way history has unfolded. As each successive invention arrives, such as the pencil, the telegraph, the Internet, etc. why do we willingly embark on the new experiences these provide, trading more and more muster for convenience, always leaving out some of the most important things, such as a collective definition and understanding of the implications of giving over to adopting them into our lives?

Short-term, the benefits sure seem pretty sweet, outweighing any doubts or delays in adoption. Long-term, however, well, most don’t generally think past the next instantly-gratifying reward.

It is with this in mind I write about a film like Snowden (and its arguably more excellent counterpart, Citizenfour), in the hope it might inspire a few more of us to be more deeply curious about what’s behind these tools and their curtains of control, what powers them and, perhaps, at long last, at least think about the heavy stuff for a moment. It’s serious. It’s important. Our children deserve better.

I’ll put it plainly and reiterate what so many have said ad nauseam before: “If the product you are using is free, then you are the product.”

It simply cannot be put more clearly than that.

If we keep this in mind and move forward from a place of greater understanding about the risks and the costs, perhaps there is a chance for us to yet collectively evolve into a mindful culture, more aware of the choices we make and the consequences those choices will inevitably return to us and the generations yet to come.

And, yes, win our collective privacy back.

A fella’s gotta have dreams, anyway.

Why am I writing this? This stuff is not becoming essential, it is already essential. “This is not science fiction. THIS IS HAPPENING.”

Go watch Snowden. Learn from it. Reflect on your own life online. Ask more questions. Become more curious. Take less of this for granted.

Perhaps in the not-too-distant-future, stories like Snowden’s will be included in our kids’ learning in high school or university classrooms. Is keeping them isolated from such insight an even greater risk than making them fearful of using the Internet?

Thank you, Ed. I am grateful for your sacrifices. In another, more thoughtful and intelligent world, they would not be necessary.

Editor’s Note – images lifted from Wired