By Marnie O'Brien
One of the most fascinating phenomena I've experienced throughout my career is the idea that "culture" and "society" are, essentially, symbiotic; both derive energy from the other in such a way that keeps cultural behaviors (i.e., language, customs, values, rules) and the people sharing these behaviors (a society) afloat. Think about workplace culture, or family values, or the oft quoted "American Dream." Specifically, however, I'm talking about societal change. Certainly there are many ways to track the cultural shifts that define a changing society; war is a big one. We know about the shifts that occurred during the Civil War, during the World Wars, the Holocaust, and too many other conflicts that I care to list here. In my opinion, war is essentially an effect of this kind of shift.
But what happens when a society wants to shift without going to war?
It led me to think how technology, specifically social networking, has aided our society in terms cultural change. Think Arab Spring, or having a multitude of new outlets for art and expression and delivery. Think about the ways we hear about new artists (YouTube) or showcase ourselves in the workplace (LinkedIn) or educate ourselves (massively open online courses) - it's created a monumental shift in our cultural norms.
And most of it has been positive, hasn't it?
Yes and No. Personally, I can tell you that there are very specific downsides to these types of shifts - for the sake of creative visualization, let's call them "social waves."
For the past several years, I have been trying to put my finger on a reason my personal life changed so drastically. I knew that I had experienced some hacker trouble (on several occasions), but why were my family and friends suddenly unresponsive and suspicious of everything I do and say? Why did I lose two jobs in a row for no particular reason? Why is my phone only working intermittently? After reading several articles, one (most glaringly) hit the nail on the head: "The Asocial Network: How Hackers Use Social Networks to Destroy You..." The research study cited in that article by the University of British Columbia is particularly alarming.
I came to the conclusion that I had, indeed, been a victim of social identity theft. This kind of theft is not your typical, run of the mill "Robber trying to get your money" thievery, but more insidious, divisive and damaging….and highly personal. Once targeted, for whatever reason, attackers have the potential to harvest an individual's entire online life, then use it for whatever purpose they choose: to defame careers, create rifts in relationships, falsely accuse or plant felonious evidence, steal money, etc.
This article "Kill the Password" explains how one technologist, Matt Honan, had his entire digital life compromised, in a matter of minutes. “My Apple, Twitter, and Gmail passwords were all robust—seven, 10, and 19 characters, respectively, all alphanumeric, some with symbols thrown in as well—but the three accounts were linked, so once the hackers had conned their way into one, they had them all. “(Honan)
Indeed, social networks truly have been huge influencers in good societal change (Arab spring, gay rights, women's issues, etc), but it's also become a hot bed of new crimes of the century: thievery, sexploitation, human trafficking, espionage - not to mention an implicit and ever-increasing gap of accessibility for the disenfranchised. The article explains full well how social identity theft could have negative impacts on society, and in terms of crime, may have already.
I'm not writing this piece to scare the crap out of everyone, but simply to ask that we all keep the downside - the new, new crimes - in the forefront of our minds: the possibility that the media and communications we see may or may not be true. That the Internet is a great and powerful "tool" to be wielded with great responsibility - and not a real "place" that so many of us are currently caught up in.
That it might be time to reign in this tool, before it becomes a significant weapon … one of mass destruction; and that perhaps one good way to keep our society on an even, yet still progressive keel; would be to simply talk to each other more.
I don't believe there is a viable substitute for authentic human interaction….yet.