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Tag: science fiction

Private concerns

imageOne reason I love science fiction is that it challenges our morals and beliefs in a way that other art forms rarely do. It asks us difficult questions, like, what if we had the ability to visit other planets and encounter different cultures? What if we could genetically “design” our children? What if we could go back in time and change history?

Unsettling questions aren’t they? But, why are they unsettling? My personal belief is that they are unsettling because our intuitions, our values, our beliefs, our laws, and our institutions were not designed to handle those questions. If you assume that Western culture is heavily derived from Ancient Greek and Roman humanism, is it any wonder that society has trouble understanding what to do with our nuclear arsenals or with humankind’s new ability to genetically alter the people and animals around us? After all, the foundations of today’s laws and values predated when people could even conceive that humans would ever have to think about such things.

So, when people ask me what I think about all the press that privacy concerns about Google or privacy concerns about Facebook or any of the other myriad social networks have garnered, I view it as manifestation of the fact that we now have technology which makes it super-easy to share information about ourselves and our location but we have yet to develop the intuititions, values, and laws/institutions to handle it.

Lets use myself as an example: I personally find auto-GPS-tagging my Tweets to be oversharing. However, I frequently Tweet the location I’m at and even the friends I’m with. Is this odd combination of preferences an example of irrationality? Probably (I was never the brightest kid). But I’d argue its more about my lack of intuition on the technology and the lack of clear cultural norms/values.

image And I’m not the only one who is beginning to come to terms with the un-intuitiveness of our digital lives. My good friend, and prominent blogger, Serena Wu recently went through a social network consolidation/privacy overhaul as a result of understanding just what it was she was sharing and how it could be used. All across the internet, I believe users are beginning to understand the consequences to privacy of their social network and search engine behavior.

Now, the easy reflex thing to do would be to simply cut off such privacy issues and cut out these social networks like one would a tumor. But, I think that would be a dramatic over-reaction akin to how the Luddites reacted to factory automation. It ignores the potential value of the technology: in the case of sharing information on social networks, this can come in the form of helping people advertise themselves to employers, assisting friends with keeping in contact with one another, and/or even delivering more valuable services over the internet. Now, that shouldn’t be construed as a blanket defense of everything Facebook or Twitter or Google does, but an understanding that there is a tradeoff to be made between privacy and service value is necessary to help the services, their users, society, and the government realize the appropriate changes in intuition, values, and rules to properly cope.

I’m not smart enough to predict what that tradeoff will look like or how our intuitions and values may change in the future, but I do think we can count on a few things happening:

  • Privacy will remain a big issue. Facebook and Twitter’s early years were marked by a very laissez-faire approach by both the users and the services on privacy. I believe that such an approach is unlikely to persist given the potential dangers and users’ growing appreciation for them. There is no doubt in my mind that, whether it be through laws, user demand, advocacy groups, or some combination of the above, data privacy and security will be a “must-have” feature of great significance for future web services built around sharing/accessing information.
  • Privacy policies and settings will become more standardized. I believe that the industry, in an attempt to become more transparent to their users and to avoid some of the un-intuitiveness that I described above, will build simpler and more standardized privacy controls. This isn’t to say that there won’t be room for extra innovation around privacy settings, but I think a “lexicon” of terms and settings will emerge which most services will have to support to gain user trust.
  • Data access APIs will become more restricted and/or use better authentication. The proliferation of web APIs has created a huge boom in new web services and mashups. However, many of these APIs use antiquated methods of authentication which don’t necessarily protect privacy. Consequently, I believe that the APIs that many new web services have grown to use will face new pressures to authenticate properly and frequently as to avoid data privacy compromise.

In the meantime, the few tips I listed below will probably be relevant to users regardless of how our rules, values, and intuitions change:

  • Understand the privacy policy of the services you use.
  • Figure out what you are willing to share and with whom as well as what you are not willing to share. Only use services which allow you to set access restrictions to those limits.
  • Check with your web service regularly on what information is being stored and what information is being accessed by a third party. (i.e., the Google Dashboard or Twitter’s Connections)
  • Advocate for better forms of authentication and privacy controls

No matter what happens in the web service privacy area, we are definitely in for an interesting ride!

(Image credit – ethics) (Image credit – Big Facebook Brother)

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Why Comics? Why SciFi?

There’s no denying it. Comic books and science fiction have more than their fair share of “only for geeks.” While I would be hard pressed to deny who I am, I will say that my love for science fiction goes far beyond just pure escapism.

imageNow, I could talk about how I think comic books represent a reassuring world where the good guys triumph and where the human spirit and concepts of justice and loyalty are all that is necessary to be a hero, and how I believe that science fiction represents an optimism about the future and the importance of human emotions and morals. But instead of “taking my word for it”, why not hear Reading Rainbow host and the actor behind Star Trek’s Geordi LaForge LeVar Burton take on the subject (yes, the quotes were an intentional Reading Rainbow reference):

I’m one of those people that believes that there was some kid back in the 1960s watching Star Trek, and he kept seeing Captain Kirk pull out this communicator and flip it open – and that kid grew up and became an engineer, a designer of products, and we now have a device that is more common than the toaster. How many flip phones do you see on a daily basis? That which we imagine is what we tend to manifest in third dimension –  that’s what human beings do, we are manifesting machines.  The metaphor of a man who has an external electronic device, something man-made that serves him and somehow serves humanity, and that he becomes so aligned with that device, with the power of that device, that at one point he can discard it – I think that’s a real metaphor for the human journey. One day we won’t need a transporter device to get from one place to another.  And it begins with the wheel and then migrates through airplanes to some future technology that we can’t produce yet but we can imagine.  Imagination is really the key part of the human journey, it’s the key to the process of manifesting what our heart’s desire is.

When I was a kid, it was comic books that pointed me in that direction and from comic books I went to science fiction literature, which is still one of my most favorite genres of literature to read.  Don’t underestimate the power of comics and what they represent for us and how they inform us on the journey of being human – because it’s powerful. It’s very powerful. They give us permission to contemplate what’s possible. And in this world, in this universe, there’s nothing that is not possible.  If you can dream it, you can do it.

To many African-Americans, like Burton and fellow Star Trek actor/fan Whoopi Golderg, Star Trek holds a very special role in their minds:

imageWhen I was a kid, I read a lot of science fiction books and it was rare for me to see heroes of color in the pages of those novels.  Gene Roddenberry had a vision of the future, and Star Trek was one that said to me, as a kid growing up in Sacramento, California, “When the future comes, there’s a place for you.”  I’ve said this many times, and Whoopi (Goldberg) feels the same way – seeing Nichelle Nichols on the bridge of the Enterprise meant that we are a part of the future.  So I was a huge fan of the original series and to have grown up and become of that mythos, a part of that family, and to represent people dealing with physical challenges, much like what Nichelle Nichols represented for people like Whoopi and myself, I can’t even begin to share with you what that means to me.

While I was fortunate enough to be born in an era where nobody questions the role of Asian-Americans in industry and science, I can also see why many Asian-Americans would have been similarly inspired by George Takei’s role as Sulu in the original Star Trek series.

(Interview on LeVar Burton’s upcoming role in DC’s Superman/Batman: Public Enemies DVD) (Image Credit – LeVar Burton) (Image Credit – Nichelle Nichols)

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