Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Our (possibly) scary future: two data points

In my RSS reader today, I came across two (seemingly) unrelated posts that ended up colliding in my mind and making me feel, well... a bit troubled about certain aspects of our glorious, technofuture.

The first is a video, "What is a browser," (by way of librarian.net) where a guy from Google asks if people know what a browser is. At the end of the day, 8% did. [As an aside, I wonder what the percentage of people who know what a carburetor, the ground wire, pasteurization, the Fifth Amendment, the treble clef and oxidation are.]

The second was a post at ArsTechnica about the re-trial a woman being charged with file sharing. I don't know much about the case. But what struck me about the defendant's testimony was that she had very poor recollection of what she did to/with her computer, when, what caused certain issues, when she was contacted by various organizations and law firms, and -- in general -- lots of stuff connected with her case.

What struck me was not that she had uncertain and (in some cases) conflicting memories of all that stuff. What struck me -- especially in light of the browser Q&A video -- was the realization that *nobody* could ever have really adequate knowledge of what went on with their computer several years ago.

Our computers -- and especially the Internet -- have become appliances. We use them every day for a variety of things. And we, mostly, don't understand them. 92% of us don't know what a browser is. That's OK... I'm not claiming super-genius status because I do; it's related to my job, and I'm a huge techno/computer geek. I don't really know what a carburetor is, yet I use one (I think) every day in my car. I'm not pointing blame or recommending that people "shape up" and learn about their computers. They don't need to, often don't want to, and shouldn't have to.

But imagine somebody asking you, "What did you buy at the grocery store three years ago?" Or, even better, "What items did you launder together on June 19, 2008?"

The defendant's testimony is confused and contradictory? Hell, my memory of what I did *last month* would be confused if you asked me a year from now, and then again a year after that. If you went back and looked at my credit card receipts or phone bill or invoices from a certain company, you'd have a *way* better picture of what I did (relative to those areas) than I do.

We simply don't document our lives. And we're living more of them on the Web. A place that, in some cases, provides a scary level of fingerprint evidence of our behavior, much of which is beyond our understanding.

Did you dowload XYZ on a certain day? Did your friend send you an email with an attachment? Did you back-up files from your iPod onto a hard-drive and then switch to a non-Apple MP3 player? Were you aware that the EULA didn't allow you to have files on more than one computer? Etc. Etc.

Our tools aren't smarter than we are. But they do have better memory.

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