I have often mused that, in this so-called Information Age, it would not be difficult to come up with a good opening sentence for a novel. It could be this: “I remember a world without passwords.” While this might not rank up there with the opening sentences of Melville’s Moby Dick or Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, it does capture the essence of this new era we live in. Moreover, my young graduate students can hardly conceive of a world that is not connected and populated with passwords. Even as we live in a world where we are threatened with identity theft and credit card breaches. despite smug promises of secure networks, we seem to have lost our names to passwords. If information is, indeed, power, it is not our power, but that of corporations and governments that is at play.
Just reflect on what you, assuming you are equipped with a modicum of computer devices, have to go through on a regular basis. You have to create and set passwords of varying complexities. You have to remember them, usually meaning you have to keep a record book of them. You have to keep a duplicate set of a password master book, and then protect them from getting lost or stolen. You are often required to reset passwords and then to make sure that you record these changes. For people who worry about losing their keys or wallets on a daily basis, keeping track of all this can get nightmarish. We may have access to greater quantities of information than any generation has ever had, but it is not as easy as high-tech service providers make it out to be.
It gets complicated the more we reflect on this. A generation ago, there was a lot of discussion and handwringing about “information haves and have-nots.” For some reason the conversation about this has seemed to diminish, even though it is unlikely that it is any less of a problem. While the costs of mobile and other computing devices have declined in respect to their power and capacity, the financial burdens remain considerable. Smart phones are not inexpensive to maintain, and they are not likely to decrease. Are we better for these costs? And, more importantly, can everyone afford them? What happens to those who cannot afford them? Can they compete? Can they function? It seems unlikely that they can.
Passwords seem to be symbolic of greater issues. They reflect, of course, a form of individual control and privilege. With them, you have confidence in your ability to purchase goods, pay your bills, access and use reward points, and invest your resources. You also heighten your sense of security and privacy, but we regularly read and hear reports about how fragile such assurances can be. It seems like everyday a news story breaks about the hacking of credit records of major chain stores or the breaching of financial records of our major banking institutions. What’s the point of our taking so much care to manage our online presence if our records are compromised anyway?
The notions of personal privacy or individual security have been either redefined or obliterated, depending on your perspective, just within the past generation. Every week, it is likely you will receive a statement about privacy from one of your credit card, financial, or utility companies. They are wordy, complicated, and in small print, and it is unlikely you will take much time to read anyone of them (just as you will probably not read most of those software user agreements when they pop up when you install the software). It would be good if you read one of these occasionally. However, this personal approach isn’t even the most important thing when we consider privacy or security. In this age of terror and 24/7 news coverage, the government has become the big issue.
As we hear of terrorist attacks, random shootings, riots, epidemics, and other such events, we often revert to expectations that government will step in to protect us. And government will often revert to using approaches that usurp our privacy and curtail our personal freedoms. Every action we take, especially online, can be followed and logged. Those who participate in online communities, such as FaceBook, give away much of their privacy, sometimes unwittingly but usually with the full knowledge that this information can be tracked by others. All of this provides extra means by which to maneuver around passwords and other barriers we think we have erected for our protection. Government is too often not our protector but what we ought to ear. Whereas our Bill of Rights protects our records found in our homes, now so many of our records are littered across cyberspace. Government sees all of us as potential dangers, as potential terrorists. Passwords are of little use here. Nor are privacy statements.
What can be done about any of this? It is perhaps that the very concepts of privacy are fundamentally changing, that we must acknowledge that we have little that is worth calling privacy. The availability of the late reclusive writer Susan Sontag’s entire digital archive at the UCLA special collections raises all sorts of questions about the nature of privacy, not the least of which is why she wanted such access. Whether this adds anything to our understanding of Sontag is debatable, but it certainly gives us a new kind of archival voyeurism. And maybe that is all that now really matters now (see Jeremy Schmidt and Jacquelyn Ardam, “On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archives,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 26 October 2014, http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/excess-susan-sontags-born-digital-archive/). How much of value will we learn about Sontag? Probably not that much, given all the trouble.
In the meantime, we need to learn to manage our passwords and our public presence online and elsewhere. Yet, there is no question we have lots to learn. We need to reach deep inside ourselves, to our personal faiths and senses of morality. Craig Deweiler, from a Christian perspective, writes, “We practice an ancient faith committed to renewal. To t)he loud, we can counter with quiet. To the fast, we can offer slow. And to the superficial, we can go deeper” (Craig Deweiler, iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2013], p. 207). From whatever perspective, these are admirable goals.
So, yes, I remember a world without passwords. But many do not. It is why a historical perspective is mandatory. Having the longer view is essential for us being able to peer through all the claims of our shiny new age in order to truly comprehend whether our lives have improved or not.