An Illusion of Security, Stability, and Control

The online world is a very interesting place. While we frequently say that we have concerns about privacy, about how our data is being used, and about what information is publicly available to us, very few people delete their social media accounts or take real action when a data breach occurs. We have been moving more and more of our life online, and we have been more accepting of devices connected to the internet that can either be hacked or be used to tacitly spy on us than we would expect given the amount of time we spend expressing concern for our privacy.

 

A quick line from Tyler Cowen’s book The Complacent Class may explain the contradiction. “A lot of our contentment or even enthrallment with online practices may be based on an illusion of security, stability, and control.”

 

I just read Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow and in it he writes about a common logical fallacy, the substitution principle. When we are asked difficult questions, we often substitute a simpler question that we can answer. However, we rarely realize that we do this. Cowen’s insight suggests that we are using this substitution fallacy when we are evaluating online practices.

 

Instead of thinking deeply and critically about our privacy, safety, and the security of our personal or financial information in a given context, we substitute. We ask ourselves, does this website intuitively feel legitimate and well put together? If the answer is yes, we are more likely to enter our personal information, allow our online movements to be tracked, enter our preferences, and save our credit card number.

 

If matching technology works well, if our order is fulfilled, and if we are provided with more content that we can continue to enjoy, we will again substitute. Instead of asking whether our data is safe or whether the value we receive exceeds the risk of having our information available, we will ask if we are satisfied with what was provided to us and if we liked the look and feel of what we received. We can pretend to answer the hard questions with illusory answers to easier questions.

 

In the end, we land in a place where the companies and organizations operating on the internet have little incentive to improve their systems, to innovate in ways that create disruptive changes, or to pursue big leaps forward. We are already content and we are not actually asking the hard questions which may push innovation forward. This contentment builds stagnation and prevents us from seeing the risks that exist behind the curtain. We live in our illusion that we control our information online, that we know how the internet works, and that things are stable and will continue to work, even if the outside world is chaotic. This could be a recipe for a long-term disaster that we won’t see coming because we believe we are safely in control when we are not.

Definitions

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright has a chapter about freedom versus security. The ideas we have for freedom and security run against each other and are sometimes very contradictory. One of the things that Wright described, which really stood out to me, about the conflicts between freedom and security is the difference in the definitions and the terms we attach to our ideas of freedom and security. Wright wrote, “What makes this discussion, and many discussions, all the more difficult to have is that opposing sides are often using different definitions of the words in question, and resultantly we might think we’re talking about the same thing, when in fact we’re merely speaking past each other.”

 

What really stood out about his idea is that it applies in almost any public debate we have. Across the United States we use a lot of different words to say and mean the same thing. Our country has a lot of variation in what words we use depending on where we find ourselves and what the culture has grasped onto. In our political lives, we do the same thing based on our political beliefs. Someone who is in favor of expanding access to abortion services is likely to use the term fetus while someone who does not believe that anyone should ever have an abortion is more likely to say unborn child or baby. In the abortion debate, it is clear to see that both sides are using different words to stir up different emotional responses.

 

In other cases, our varying use of definitions in political contexts can be more subtle, nuanced, and confusing. A lot of internet sub-cultures exist and have specific ways of referring to groups of people, to the positive outcomes they want to see, or the negative things that are going on around them. In some ways using the right definition for an uncommon word is unnecessary but shows that you are part of the inside crowd and that you are on the right side (or at least understand one side) of the discussion. If you are not aware of these definitions, there is a good chance you could use a term in a way that seems reasonable to you, but that reveals that you don’t know what the inside group is talking about and that you don’t actually think they way they do about a given issue.

 

When we have conversations, we should work to be very clear about the definitions we use for specific terms. We should be aware of times when our definition of a word is an insider’s definition from a subgroup of the population. We might be using a definition that is only used by some Twitter group, a definition that is only used by people who have studied a topic in college, or a definition that is only used by either Republicans or Democrats. For us to be effective communicators and to make sure we don’t isolate people around us (or ourselves) we have to recognize how these definitions work and how certain words will either bring people into our discussion by signaling we are part of their tribe, or will push people away by signaling that we don’t agree with their beliefs.

An Artifact of the Media

In his book The Most Good You Can Do, Princeton professor Peter Singer introduces the idea that the world is improving and becoming a less dangerous place as we become more globalized, and as effective altruists and average citizens make greater efforts to help those who are the most disadvantaged.  Singer states, “If the world seems to be a more violent and dangerous place than ever before, however, this impression is an artifact of the media.” I strongly agree with Singer’s statement and believe that in many ways our world is an improved place, even though that idea is not presented to us by our politicians and national media.

 

Despite claims that we need to make America great again and that daily life in the United States is in danger, many people face few risks of even being moderately uncomfortable.  For me, remembering how challenging life is for those in third world countries helps provide me a better perspective of where I am, and how sever my struggles are relative to others.  Singer would argue that effective altruists are able to live their lives with greater happiness because they are able to recognize this fact and take steps to reduce their own needs while using their resources to help others.  When you can avoid fear, jealousy, and gluttony in the United States, you are able to live quite comfortably without being pressured by the negatives in capitalism. You are then able to use capitalism to your advantage by not consuming and spending more, but by consuming less and donating more in an effort to assist those who need it most.

 

Singer presents information in his book which backs up his claim that the world is slowly improving. He cites statistics from UNICEF that he included in a book written in 2009 which showed that nearly 10 million children were dying from avoidable causes related to poverty each year. The most recent statistic available from UNICEF as Singer completed The Most Good You Can Do in 2015 showed that 6.3 million children were dying from poverty related avoidable causes.  The reduced child mortality rates gave Singer hope, and to him served as proof that we were getting to a world with less suffering and unnecessary death.  Singer did not assert that effective altruists or any specific program was the reason for the reduced death rate, but he presented the information as a ray of light in the face of the doom and gloom of our national media.  We are bombarded with negativity every time we turn on the TV or pull up social media, but Singer argues that this negativity is created by our media consuming habits which dial in on the negative and tragic.  Our perception of the world has become worse and worse as we have taken major steps to shape the world into a better place.

Freedom and Security

In a letter written to James Harmon for the book, Take My Advice,  writer Larry Niven writes, “The product of Freedom and Security is a constant.  To gain more freedom of thought and/or action, you must give up some security, and vice versa.”  Niven’s quote speaks to me about trying to find a middle ground in the world of freedom and security.  He continues to explain that the constant is different for every individual and how the product of the two may vary depending on individual personalities.  Some individuals strive to reach out to new people and new places, while others become more comfortable with a set routine and a guaranteed paycheck and living space.

 

Thinking about actions and choices in terms of freedom and security and understanding their relationship can help me find the place that I believe is right for me.  I am not always as adventurous as I would like to be, but I understand that there is a certain level of security with which I am comfortable. Because my security allows me to spend my days without a constant worry, I can reach a higher level of happiness and self confidence even though I am not as adventurous as others may be.  Becoming aware of the conflicting feelings that arise when I feel as though I have been in a routine for too long helps me enjoy each moment and remember that my security has has allowed me to reach the place I am. Finding a constant between freedom and security that leaves you in a confident place is a good thing, but I think there is still room for experimenting to see if more or less of either would benefit you.  I would not argue for large pendulum swings, but an occasional swing for freedom or retreat towards security can be a solid learning experience to draw on as we search for our proper balance between the two.

Unfolding Outcomes

In her book Packing Light, Vesterfelt also writes, “Most of life is unfolding on the road in front of us. The “outcome” can change as fast as the scenery.”  This quote is important for me because it represents a lot of the thoughts that I have about my future. I am unsure of what I really want in life, and often have trouble with answering questions along the lines of where do you see yourself in 5 years, 10 years, or any length of time. In the past I know that I was locked in to an image of what success was, and I knew the outcomes I wanted: a big house, a classic muscle car, lots of medals and awards from running races.  Over time, I have had to try to identify what skills I have and what opportunities present themselves to me, matching the skills I have. With this process I have had to look at what goals or images of success I had in my mind (the outcomes) and get to the base of those goals and ideas of success to try and understand where they came from.
With life constantly changing, and new opportunities presenting themselves to me I have learned to let go of the outcomes, and focus instead on trying to be the best version of myself that I can be. It is an incredibly stressful process because I am constantly looking for security, but the things that seem to be “secure” to me don’t seem to be interesting or rewarding. Learning that the outcomes can change, and allowing the outcome that I desire to shift has allowed me to have a more dynamic approach to my every day life. I do not feel so locked in to a particular goal or vision of success, and allowing those goals to change reduces the stress I feel, and also seems to provide me with more time to allow myself to reach a state where I feel successful with the person I have become.