Don’t give up on your privacy

“I don’t really care about keeping my data private, Instagram already knows everything about me anyway.”

~ Most People I know

Here’s the thing. I get it, I really do. You are just 1 person, and Google is a massive company. So is amazon, so is Facebook (now meta), So is Microsoft. You need their services. I get it. But that doesn’t mean you should hand over all your personal data to these mega-corporations. The goal of this essay is simple and has just one goal. To prove the value of personal privacy. In a future post, Ill go into much more detail on how to actually improve your privacy.

Reshaping Reality Through Social Media

To reach my goal, let’s discuss the degradation of society, through one simple concept. Social Media. It’s low hanging fruit, I know. But it’s just the most aggressive example currently available. When you use products like TikTok, the application tracks you. It learns about you. This is pretty common knowledge. What isn’t as commonly known is what happens next. As a revenue generating tool, TikTok is only affective when it keeps your eyes on the screen. To that end, TikTok and EVERY single other major social media app employs a process called machine learning to feed you a constant drip of content you will like, keeping you on the platform. It’s common sense. The more time you spend on the service, the more content you consume, the more ad revenue you generate for them. But, it goes further than that. See, that machine learning process relies on a multiplicity of inputs to determine what kind of content to put into your feed. Everything from the time of day, your location, and even the way you type messages on your keyboard are all recorded and then processed by the algorithm. Then, this data is used to push the most interesting-to-you content to the top f your feed. For a thought provoking journey further down this path, I recommend The Social Dilemma on Netflix. The main thesis of The Social Dilemma documentary is that social media is designed to cause addiction and is inherently damaging to the consumer and to society.

But, I think that we need to look deeper. Most people simply believe that their addictions to Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, TikToc, and all the rest are simply personal choices. And many would admit that it’s a bad personal choice…

But what are you going to do? The Internet Gods own all your information anyway, so why does it matter?

~ Most People I know

It matters, because it’s reshaping society into a polarized dystopia. Cornel University ran a study back in 2020 which provided a huge amount of visibility into the echo chambers built around social media consumption. In this study, the researchers at Cornel found that social media user accounts tended towards wide stratification. Users who frequented the now defunct “The Donald” Subreddit also frequented many other specific Conservative subreddits, to the point where simple association with “The Donald” almost by definition meant association with multiple other communities on Reddit. This is dangerous. Not because political conservatism is dangerous, but because getting all your perspective from a single constellation of internet communities creates binary viewpoints. Us vs. Them. You either agree, or you are wrong. These echo chambers remove the opportunity for discourse and nuance. They push people to unconsciously choose binary, opposing sides on issues that may actually have many more than two possible positions. And this manipulation is destroying democracy, society, and families.

The Trend

A Pew Research poll from 2020 showed that on average, most trump supporters don’t have friends who like Biden, and most Biden supporters don’t have friends who like Trump.

This was not always the case. In the mid 1990’s people were mostly center right, or center left in their opinions. Over the last 20 years, we have seen a sharp increase in polarization within both political parties. As shown in the graphic below, political polarization has DOUBLED since 2004, according to another set of data from the Pew Research Center. This polarization manifest itself during the exact same period over which social media become ubiquitous.

And now, our severe political devide is beginning to devolve into acts of political violence and rumors of civil war.

And it’s not just political polarization. Over this same time, the instance of mental health events requiring treatment for young adults and children has almost doubled.

Social media and big tech is dangerous for society, for politics, and for each of us personally. Hopefully I just made that abundantly clear. But how does this relate to privacy? Without your personal information – whether it be your telemetry data, your name, gender, and whatever else – the tech Gods have a much harder time building their manipulative algorithms. Machine Learning relies on data. LOTS of data. The more data in the set, the more effective the algorithm is. And conversely, the fewer data elements in the set, the less effective it can be.

In the eyes of the algorithm, you might be a 30 something year old man with diabetes who votes republican, loves guns, but wants universal healthcare. So the content you will get in your feed will re-certify those opinions on a daily basis. Do you really want your personality and strongly held beliefs to be founded simply on data which was re-fed back to you from data which an algorithm learned from your search terms? Do you want your children to grow up with crippling social anxiety and depression, because they can not live up to the images they are re-fed daily by the algorithm which learns from the content they aspire to imitate? I hope not. And if you agree with me that this is a reality we don’t want, then maybe you will consider your telemetry data, your gender-age-hight-weight information, and all other aspects of your life personal and private by default.

The Call to Action

So, how do you do better? Well, simply stop using technology which uses your personal information to provide you with tailored content. Period. This pretty much rules out 90% of cellphone usage. And I’m going to argue that it’s a good thing. Think about it this way, are you seeking out content when you go to your phone? Or, is content seeking you out? When you pick up your phone, do you look for a specific article of interest? Or are you pulling up Instagram to see what’s new? If you are in the latter camp, you are feeding the machine. If you are in the former, hopefully you are being fed by the knowledge you gain.

In life, our actions have consequences. Personally, I want to live a life of consequence, providing as much value to my community as I possibly can. And I won’t be able to do that if I’m re-feeding myself my own biases, provided by an algorithm that only cares about generating revenue for mega-corps in Silicon Valley. So, turn off telemetry tracking in your apps, and don’t trust your data to organizations who aren’t trustworthy, knowing that doing so is going to require sacrifices.

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