I remember the first snowfall with our dog. Not because my memory is exquisite and able to retain every detail of my time with the pup, but because this one thing stood out: I could see what her nose was smelling. The many sudden yanks of the leash I had experienced while walking together (and been at times frustrated with) suddenly made sense. The world that I could not see until then had been revealed by that white cover (it sounds a bit backwards and ironic but it is not at all.)
I am and will remain subject to an incurable love for dogs, and that was relevant in more than one way. Scientifically fascinating and emotionally bonding because I could be in her world for a bit and realize that the way we look at the world is at times an awfully narrow perspective. A dog’s nose, some tracks and a bit of snow revealed a world of possibilities.
I was reminded of it this morning as we followed a snowy-mushy trail full of yesterday’s snow and, since then, lots of tracks. Poppy’s nose followed this set of tracks and then another, hopping with much grace and elegance from one to the next, sometimes trekking up the slope for a while, going around a tree or a bush, then returning to join me.
All of it purposeful and very much aligned with her nature, which includes an outstanding tracking device: her nose.
My next thought had to do with my own experience of tracking, or rather being tracked. A quick and obligatory explanation: I grew up without internet, which to this day I consider one of the blessings of my childhood. Freedom to be and think is the best kind of existence a child could ask for; freedom to form thoughts, opinions, take oneself temporarily away from social interactions if you so desire, etc. I had it all.
But… I grew up under a communist regime. Tracking people was the big dark shadow blowing a cold air over people’s lives. Secret services, helped by informers, tracked people’s lives, words and actions, and that tracking often meant imprisonment (never to be heard from again type of horrid facility) or even death, preceded by torture. So yes, as a child, I was blissfully unaware and that context makes my then freedom to think and be even more precious.
I do remember that whenever the phone line was crackling, adults would joke about the phones being tapped. Maybe they were. Yes, there are still many mysteries I have yet to uncover about those times. Another day’s story I presume.
Back to now. My life, like yours, is defined, in many ways by the existence of what we know as internet. The very fact that I can write this and it reaches you without my sending a letter with the very words… that is astonishing. The good parts, you know. Internet as a learning tool, as a facilitating platform if you will, for so many positive developments in our world.
More than with any other human-discovered enterprise perhaps, the pros and cons abound (and I will not even go deeper other than a quick mention of the less known ‘dark’ web world that is almost 500 times larger than what we know as the world wide web, according to American academic and entrepreneur Michael K. Bergman. OK, that’s a story for another day as well.)
Back to the good and the bad and making sense of the avalanche of our own tracks in the invisible world of internet. Last year around this time, I read the book Zucked by Roger MacNamee. Some parts were technical enough to become a bit tedious, but nonetheless, the author managed to shine light on the troubling and subversive strategies used in social media (by Facebook in particular) and by various companies behind search engines such as the mighty Google search.
It made me more aware of my online footprint (brain/mind print perhaps is more accurate?). Simply put, though the topic is anything but, everything we do online leaves a trace of. And enables more of the same. Tracking, mostly for the purpose of selling stuff. Not just material stuff but everything stuff from education (courses, books, websites that align with your interests) to actual material stuff which, as we all know, is at this point as vast in size and offering as can be, to political opinions which can sway entire countries this way or that.
So…tracking. After reading the above-mentioned book and learning more about the internet-related ethics (or lack thereof) from Tristan Harris, former Google Design Ethicist and co-founder of Center for Humane Technology, I switched to using a search engine called DuckDuckGo. I know, it sounds cute and silly (there is a story there, for sure.) I also reduced my ‘internet tracks’ as much as I could.
I use that DuckDuckGo on my laptop and on my phone and since you are about to ask, the answer is no, it does not (always) yield the same super search results that a Google search would. But you can still find your way to good and reliable information if you know what you are after.
The interesting part is this though: because you cannot just part ways with Google (nor do I entirely wish to because there are a lot of good developments they have brought about and that could be ethically improved) I can still use Google searches when I want to. Every time I do so though, I am flooded with information I did not ask for. Ads crowding my Twitter feed, my inbox and just about any internet ‘space’ I find myself in.
The difference between the quiet post-search with DuckDuckGo versus the ‘noise’ generated with a Google search is real, and not surprising, but yes, surprising. Still, it is but a small part of it. The moral of the story is an ongoing one, I would say, and it can be summed by a question: How much of what you do, think, and pursue in life, is influenced by information you did not ask for but get supplied with anyway?
I have talked to many people who are saying that they do not care about being tracked. Their lives are just not important enough to have anything of value to offer to the big companies. But the issue is not just with what you can offer them from your day-to-day life (though personal information of any kind is a gold mine) but also with what the tracking translates into: influence. To pursue this or that (including political convictions), to buy (when you do not need, want even, or have the means,) and to change your life in a way that is hard to see objectively.
Keeping informed for the purpose of cultivating the mind and becoming a better version of yourself is a worthy goal, possibly the worthiest there is. I am inclined to believe that a lot of what results from an unguarded online presence ultimately opposes this goal though, or at least alters it to some extent, because freedom to think is altered. And that interferes with much of what we aim to do, be and become.