Change is a frequent news topic these days. Everything is in a state of flux. Whether good or bad it keeps coming, and at an ever increasing rate. There is a change in motion right now that is downright scary, and we do not even appreciate its depth. It is our privacy – it’s disappearing. Sure, we see articles and op/ed pieces about it, but the authors inevitably fail to get how far on down the road we are.
Those who do express concern are more likely to offer a blithe “we live in a different world today.” Of course we do – if yesterday was average, about 153,000 people died and about 360,000 babies were born. That’s not it, ladies and gentlemen. The real question is – are you good with re-jiggering the Constitution? Because right now, we are letting it happen by default. How’s that for passive/aggressive behavior? And what should keep us all up at night is the fact that we do not even seem to know it. The problem is taking care of itself – for better (a little) or (a lot) worse.
How do I know this? Because I am astute, with an eye toward the future. Okay, so I’m neither. But I actually do know someone who is both. GARRETT GRAFF has a front row seat at the intersection of national security, technology and politics. As a high school senior, he was the first webmaster for then-Governor HOWARD DEAN of Vermont. That was before he went to Harvard. Which was before he was the first blogger admitted to a White House press conference. Which was before he was the editor-in-chief of two magazines – THE WASHINGTONIAN and POLITICO. Which is about the same time that he was writing two or three books, teaching social media at GEORGETOWN and speaking at places that would not let you or me in at gunpoint. Oh, and he is 35. He’s the kind of guy that is so smart and so accomplished that you just want to pinch his nose, but he is way too nice for that.
I recently heard him speak down in Florida. He said “we are living in a time that is every bit as transformative as the Renaissance – technology is making us make decisions that we can’t even begin to understand.” Chew on that for a few seconds. He described a collapse between our personal life and our public life – sometimes a good one and sometimes not. It brought to mind an old cartoon in the NEW YORKER where two dogs are staring at a computer screen. One says to the other – “on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” Well, not anymore, and it will be that way with an ever increasing sophistication. The internet is getting smarter. Your business bona fides are becoming less what you say they are and more what your body of work is – and if you get it wrong the internet will out you. If you are a 73 year old Governor in a Southern state and you are trying to project a particular image … well, you get the picture.
In that regard, the internet getting smarter is good for the consumer. It provides transparency. But it can also be intrusive. We are making hundreds of decisions each day where we are unwittingly giving up our privacy for the sake of convenience. You sure don’t think it is a coincidence that you get five emails and a Facebook ad suggesting the same book you reviewed on Amazon the day before, do you? Since my wife reads this column to induce sleep, however, I should point out that those emails offering the two for one specials at DIAMONDS GENTLEMEN’S CLUB truly came out of nowhere.
During his talk, Graff asked a question – “do you want your government do the same things that you let Facebook, Twitter and online retailers do?” Of course not. But it does not matter, because they are doing it, and tomorrow they will be doing it more. The war against terrorism has to be balanced against our legitimate right to be free of government intrusion. The scarier something is, the easier it is to find a constitutional work around. Taking a cafeteria approach to suspending civil rights, however, is a slippery slope.
Where is the point of balance, the sweet spot? Who knows? This is not a message with an answer. It is a cry to arms. We do need to guard against terror, both domestic and foreign. Technology has drastically changed the battlefield for law enforcement catching bad guys of every type. But we are talking about a right central to our being – a core American belief. So we better start discussing the issues intelligently, devoid of politics (yeah, I know) and mindful of all of the ramifications, good and bad. It has been happening behind the scenes (or at least we have ignored the real effect), and we are nearing a tipping point. Or, perhaps, we already have.