Monday, April 9, 2012

Rethinking Character in Digital Era

            In my last post, I concluded, ”So as an educator, certainly I’m concerned about the implications of all this technology. Of course, like Carr, I’m worried about the adverse effects it may be having on our brains, particularly those of young people who are in key formative periods. But I want to fire another warning shot. We had better also think very hard about questions of character.” In that regard, we need to rethink the oft-repeated notion that character is how one behaves when no one is watching. Because now there seldom is a time when someone isn’t watching you in some fashion.

Recently I’ve begun reading Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness after the Digital Explosion. It does a phenomenal job of laying out some of the massive implications of increasingly pervasive technology, most of them zipping along behind our veil of blissful ignorance. In short, there is no privacy anymore—at least not if you participate in even rudimentary aspects of modern life. Early on the authors point out that the London bombings were solved because there are thousands of cameras all over the city, many more than imagined in Orwell’s 1984. Plus in the novel the two-ways monitors could be turned by those in the know. Signals from cell phones, scans of toll tags, ATM records—we leave a trail of digital footprints wherever we go.

These footprints can save our lives. The book opens with a story of a woman saved after a car wreck when a rescue crew found her by tracking cell phone signals. In another example, you may recall a case a few years ago when a Duke University lacrosse player was accused of rape. At first, he seemed to be assumed guilty. However, as the case unfolded, the digital trail of his path the night of the incident showed that he could not have been present at the time the woman said the rape happened.

Of course, all this means that we have ceded a high degree of freedom, often without realizing it. Even when we do so, a quick cost-analysis suggests to us that the potential loss is well worth the convenience that it affords us. After all, just imagine if we had to withdraw cash only when the bank was open? I’m really just getting into this part of the book, so I’m curious to see what the authors see as the potential damages.

At this point, there is no turning back that I can see…and I don’t believe we should even think of doing that if we could. Instead, we’re presented with a challenge. And I don’t mean just protecting our privacy, although that’s obviously important. Now that we all live such public lives, let’s really think about how we conduct ourselves all the time. We need to keep in mind another idea about character: that one should never do anything that would prove truly embarrassing if it ended up on the front page or the evening news. Because it very well might. Or at least on a blog or Facebook.

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