Digital Honesty in the Millennial Frontier

By Ahsen Jillani

I have another life in which I am a 109-year-old Arab sheikh, and I live in Texas. Over the years, I have had countless arguments about why I feel no obligation to be anything else in cyberspace.

This issue is gradually beginning to take on a new meaning as the digital world digs its claws deeper into our daily lives. I occasionally type something innocent in the search field, like “woman raking leaves," and watch the information monster come awake in my life.

Yes we have all been debating lately if Alexa or Siri could hear us all the time—and they can. Some cyber-giants like Apple and Amazon have apologized for intrusive voice farming, or at least acknowledged that the possibility and technology exists. But the “woman raking leaves" analogy has become so routine to us now that we consider it a convenience at worst.

On a fully loaded Smartphone, a simple search triggers a feeding frenzy amongst the giant gorillas who own our lives. Rakes start appearing in the Facebook feed with 5-star ratings. My Amazon homepage becomes a virtual shed full of shiny gardening tools. Home Depot sends me an email with 10 percent off on any rake purchase. Cookies on the phone adopt “rake" as the preferred word as soon as I enter “R."

According to my phone, which is much smarter than me, I spend a stunning 5-6 hours a day on the device. Like most of us, I treat it like a personal assistant and bark nonsense on social media and search for any weird object that comes to mind.

The problem is that I am beginning to feel that the phone is actually my personal boss, rather than assistant.

Since Facebook thinks I am an aging Arab in Texas, my feed is full of geriatric gems, like life insurance offers, social security seminars, nursing home ads, local hospitals offering happy colonoscopies, and of course, news about Texas. Actually, even though the GPS knows precisely where I am sitting, living room or toilet, my weather app constantly flashes Texas weather emergencies also—in addition to targeted car ads in Houston or Austin.

I have nothing to hide

Digital paranoia kind of came and went. We are all numb to the information gathering and consider it a part of our daily lives. After all, rakes are innocent enough. And so what if I am searching for colon cancer articles. I have nothing to hide. Actually, a couple of years ago, I ran into a thread where a paranoid fellow cyber-traveler was discussing how to keep all the phone records and cookies off the phone.

A hundred people jumped on him and accused him of cheating on his spouse. After all, why else would you hide from Bezos and Zuckerberg?

The millennials have actually grown up with the information monster, and as best consider it a friend. Those of us who played Atari in the 80s, and used to put floppy drives in the early PCs have seen this phenomenon evolve slowly— from those bulletin boards where we would type messages in green flickering text while hogging our phone lines with 2400 Baud modems, to the early cookies being set by AOL every time we checked that magical thing called email.

I to this day remain puzzled about our relationship with the internet. I mean, what does it want? What do the social media companies want? What do the free apps want? Why is Apple face-recognizing the photos in my phone? Why does all their fine print want full access to my contacts and photos?

A pipeline that constantly monitors

Truthfully, there may be two scenarios at play in information harvesting. There may simply be that nerd programmer who wants a Lambo and is always searching for an app that a granddaddy like Facebook would purchase. WhatsApp was an example, but there are thousands more. The giants of course are slowly becoming part of a pipeline that constantly monitors what we are doing, and sells us what we don't need as a society, or a planet—whether we like it or not; whether we want it or not.

So digital honesty is nothing I lose sleep over. On top of being an oxymoron, it is slowly morphing into a religion headed by smiling nerds who are richer than god. No, we don't put honest pictures on social media. We take 20, then use filters and effects, and we crop and we upload with some statement that seems nonchalant because of course we have such busy and stylish lives.

Nonsense mushy memes

Those more savvy will open photos in Photoshop and alter backgrounds in addition to airbrushing their skintags. If someone is in Paris, we google streetview Paris and tell them to definitely drink coffee at the Café de Criminale, which is our favorite place in Paris.

We put our correct birthdays on social media, so 200 strangers can send us nonsense mushy memes and GIFs with hearts flying out of a puppy's chest.

You, John Doe, with a certain birthday, living in a certain town, is now an entity that will forever live in the heart of the internet. Those FindAnyone subscription sites will know who you are and where you are. Amazon will know your shopping habits and urge you to get their corporate card because you buy so many printing supplies. Facebook will know you like sports cars and sell ads to local (Texas) dealers. Google will send a van with a camera up and down the street for god knows what reason.

I am not invisible, but I aim to go down fighting in this final battle for my privacy. And for that privacy, this sheikh will sacrifice the 15 percent off at Old Navy and keep a picture of his camel as the profile picture on Facebook.

Don't mess with Texas!

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Ahsen Jillani a former editor and publisher, is originally from Islamabad, Pakistan, and now lives in Mint Hill. He owns Must Media, a PR company focusing on both political and corporate clients.