Do you remember when we were kids, how we dropped 20 Pfennig coins into payphones on the streets, how excitedly we waited for the connect signal to ask our friends if they’d come down to play?
When I think of the analogue past I remember my childhood and feel blessed to have grown up in that time, when private internet connections were still few and far between. Can you imagine that I barely used the internet at all until i was about 15 years old? It was only when I was already a teenager that I gradually discovered ICQ and MSN, and that I started to enter exchanges with my friends in chatrooms. That was long before the iPhone and the likes. A mere 10 years ago I bought my first iPhone – a phone with ‘real’ internet. I had just graduated at that point.
Every generation has special characteristics, and I guess people of my generation are the only ones who can rightfully claim be digital natives while still remembering the analogue world without internet. We will be the only generation to experience the full transition from the pre-internet age over dial-up modems to artificial intelligence. And we are the last generation whose life is not digitally captured from the very beginning to the end. Maybe we are the last generation who still takes the notion of privacy as a given.
One day we’ll be able to say:
‘imagine, there is no data from my childhood and my youth other than the childhood photos I shared on my social media for festive occasions.’
What a time to be alive.
At the weekend I attended IFA (Internationale Funkausstellung), Germany’s most important fair for consumer electronics and home appliances, where I caught a glimpse of the trends of tomorrow. What really struck me is that almost all appliances and software applications gather data in order to adjust functionalities to the user’s preferences – be it a coffee machine or a digital sleeping mask. The daily household appliances of the near future collect data all the time, with focus on our habits: when do we go to bed, how often do you exercise and how healthy is your diet?
Optimization will be more central to our lives than ever before.
And the route towards optimization, it seems, is for companies to get an ever clearer picture of consumer habits.
But where is all this going to lead us?
We are uneasy about the data-goldrush, we’d prefer if others wouldn’t know too much about us, but it seems that comfort always wins. We are all too easily swayed by the idea of not having to go shopping or not having to manually hoover the flat, and we keep using Google instead of DuckDuckGo. And once we get used to a service, it becomes very difficult to break the newly established habits.
Our tolerance levels expand every year, we accept more and more that we become increasingly transparent as individuals. And while our personal assistant eavesdrops on us, we kind of stop noticing how the sphere we call private shrinks around us. What does it matter, after all, if some company knows what kind of bread I prefer, right?
How much of a private sphere does each of us need though?
In my case, the idea of privacy has become pretty restricted already, due to the simple fact that I share my life and my habits not only with the same companies as most of you do, I also share them with a large community. Weirdly enough, knowing how much many people know about my life doesn’t feel particularly strange to me, if anything it makes me feel safe.
The thing is, as long as we don’t talk about my fears or thoughts we are alone with these emotions. The positive feedback I get from you as a community is like a safety net for me. It helps me to see in difficult moments that other people can relate to my situation, that others may have gone through similar experiences. I couldn’t say that the idea that you know what’s on my mind, where I live or what my daily life looks like makes me worried in any way. Neither does it bother me if someone knows what my favorite kind of bread is.
But my case is slightly different from that of many others, and the main point is:
I decide what I want to share and what not.
It is more important than ever before to be fully aware of the fact that the growing number of data that’s available on all of us not only benefits the companies that monetize this personal data (‘if the product is free, you’re the product!’) – it also opens up hitherto unimaginable possibilities to criminal minds. We should ask ourselves: who else, apart from companies and followers, could have an interest in knowing what our daily lives look like?
It’s the little things we don’t think of, like for example a heating app that pre-heats your apartment half an hour before you come home. Convenient for you, very convenient for a burglar as well. Can the answer really be a security app? Is kidnapping actually still possible when each and every step is tracked and traced?
Another dangerous scenario is a shift of political climate in a country, given that the state obviously has access to a wealth of intimate data, which can be easily abused to facilitate the persecution of those who are or think different. How could we effectively protet ourselves from this kind of state intervention?
Do I want my account number, information about my health or my sexual preferences to be (publicly) accessible?
You can probably guess the answer to that one. Even though I’m part of the privileged group of people for whom the public availability of such information would not really make much of an impact, professionally or personally, since I’m in no danger of political persecution or other threats to my existence, I still wouldn’t want this information to be in the public domain. I wouldn’t want to be judged and classified by it.
But how much longer will we retain sovereignty over our data?
I am in an inner conflict. On the one hand I don’t want to share all this private data, on the other I wouldn’t want to miss the luxury and comfort in this new world of individualised apps and smart technologies. But more than with the present, I am preoccupied with the future.
Contact lenses that transmit health data, appliances that read our brain activity and use that data for digital connection – these technologies are around the corner. So, how do the words brain-hacking, Neuralink and Building 8 make you feel?
The future seems within reach now, and looking at the pace of development over the past 10 years I am acutely aware how hazy and inaccurate my idea of the future necessarily is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for progress. I don’t feel threatened by innovation and development, on the contrary, I believe they can make good on their promise to us to contribute to a better life.
The advance of technology cannot be stopped, which makes it all the more crucial that we take an active role in channeling its course, also legally. We should be very conscious of the fact that we are the last generation that can influence the course of it all from a perspective of having known an analogue world. It is our duty, as digital natives, to participate in the discourse, to engage with the risks, the possibilities of protecting our (mental) privacy, and our boundaries.
The stakes could not be higher. If we don’t live up to that responsibility, we are putting the very liberty of our thoughts and emotions at risk.