Big Brother is Listening, So is Alexa, Echo, Siri, and Google Home!

This post is not meant to make you worry about all your digital assistants, but I guess the best advice is just to remind yourself that “somebody” or “something” else may be listening. But who really cares about all my mundane conversations in the privacy of my own home or someone else’s? Personally, I don’t have any state secrets to share, but it all does seem a little spooky to me. The again, why would you share you secrets with a talking machine?

Danny Hakim, in NY Times Sunday edition, put it this way: “At least I can take comfort that I’m not the only one who wonders about these things. In the past three years, the Better Business Bureau told me that it had received 9,876 complaints about Amazon.com. Seventy-nine were related to the Echo speaker, which features Alexa, and just a single one of these complaints mentioned privacy concerns.”

So why should I worry? Let’s face it, we may all be living in an era when our lives are an “open book,” or at least those parts we share with our digital assistants!

Ray Myers

P.S. Please have a look at mypeacecorpsstory.com, podcast #018, where I discuss my “technology-free” Peace Corps years in India

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Some Parental Advice from Melinda Gates

Melinda Gates does not presume to be a professional parenting expert. But she does have some thoughts to share based on her own personal experience as a mother who happens to be married to Microsoft’s founder. They are primarily reflections on her own parenting experience and what she might have done differently. Her over-riding concern is that parents should decide for themselves what works for their family, but adds that “I probably would have waited longer before putting a computer in my daughters’ pockets.”

“Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning to be kind, coping with feeling of exclusion, taking advantage of freedom while exercising self-control. It’s more important than ever to teach empathy from the very beginning, because our kids are going to need it.” One online resource that she mentions is Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org) which advises families on how media can best be adapted to support more shared life experiences. For example, “One of my favorite things you can do is plan a ‘device-free dinner.’ It’s not complicated. It’s exactly what it says: an hour around a table without anything that has an on or off switch . . . (with) the promise of an amazing conversation.” 

Well, maybe they won’t all be “amazing conversations,” but at least we can increase the odds of having some. And Melinda Gates also believes that in learning to better listen and talk with each other, we may all develop a deeper sense of empathy for one another. I agree, and I don’t think you will find an “app” for that yet?

Ray Myers

The Strong Silent Type – Even When Texting or Not?

Okay men, maybe it’s time to break some of those old male stereotypes in the digital age of the twenty first century.  Some women, you know who you are, may say it is a hopeless cause.  All men really want is someone to listen to them and go easy on the advice.  It seems like the most preferred female response is a simple, “Mm hmmm.”  But now that we are in the digital age, men may finally find that they can open up more freely through texting and other social media, expressing their most innermost thoughts.  Well, as they say, “good luck with that.”  Even in the case of the youngest social media users, sex may be be the key determinant in how they choose to express themselves (or not) online.

I am not sure that this online behavior has been scientifically documented, but there seems to be plenty of anecdotal data to suggest some behavioral differences in this regard.  Here is one writer’s experience:  “A few months ago . . . my nephew, now seven years old, got his first cellphone.  There was his number on our family group text, a long message chain that my sisters and I use as a place to deposit our complaints about the day and his puns.  So far, his contributions have been a string of plane and car emojis.  Excited though, to have this new way to talk to him, I sent him a message.  I saw the flickering bubbles that showed he was typing back.  Then nothing.  For the next twelve hours, his side of the conversation was blank.  Finally, a day later, a single response:  ‘Hey.'”

In defense of our seven year old “brother,” it may just be overwhelming to keep up with older aunts whether they are conversing online or in person.  Be strong, young man!  Maybe not so silent.

Ray Myers

How About a Coffee Break – Skip the Wi-Fi, Skip Trump

Now why would you want to make your coffeee shop wi-fi free?  It may seem a bit nostalgic, but some cafe owners would like to bring back the art of the conversation in their shops.  What a concept!  You can actually sit at a table and converse with friends, colleagues, or perhaps even strangers, as you sip your coffee and discuss all the latest news and/or gossip.  Just think, you can actually create your own Trump-free spaces where you can choose NOT to hear or see all the breaking news about his latest tweets and antics.  I know that keeping up with him can be addictive, and unfortunately, he loves to keep you hooked.

Back to the coffee shop.  Without wi-fi, these shops may soon become our oasis in the desert of social networking and instant communication on any topic at any time.  Some shop owners do not see the wi-fi restriction as revolutionary but as a response to society’s deep immersion into all things digital that leads people to seldom communicate face to face.  To promote conviviality, some shops have adopted a no wi-fi policy and gone a step further: doing away with some comfy furniture and narrowing counters to make them less accommodating for laptops.

So maybe we could all use a little more face time (not FaceTime) to actually talk about what is happening in this age of Trump.  He may be addicted to always being in the news, but we should not be addicted to him.   He is Not Making America Great Again.

Ray Myers

Conversation – There’s no App for That

Ours is now a world of constant communication.  We can reach colleagues, friends, and family in an instant thanks to our technological connectivity anywhere from wherever we may be.  It’s hard to imagine that it has not always been this way.  And as teachers struggle with implementing technology in their classrooms in the most advantageous ways for all students, they often find technology getting in the way.  With students’ heads bowed scanning the screens of their iPads or other digital devices, teachers must often compete for some modicum of attention for a lesson they are presenting.

Maybe there’s really nothing new about this classroom phenomenon.  Teachers have been competing for students’ undivided attention since the days of Aristotle but the most consequential outcome in the digital age may be the loss of students’ conversational and broader social skills.  As one writer expresses it:  “Kids have to use their five senses, and, most of all, they have to talk to each other.”   In a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study across more than three dozen countries (not including the United States), moderate computer use in school results in modest academic gains.   More frequent or heavy computer use has a negative impact on student learning.  

So students in the digital age may actually be learning less as they use their computers more.  Besides turning off or moderating their use of digital devices, what should these young people do.  Maybe have a face-to-face conversation with someone?

Ray Myers



Not What’s App – Let’s Talk

Unitasking is becoming a lost art, and the art of conversation may also be dying with it.  We have become so accustomed to multitasking enabled by omnipresent technology that we may have lost the ability to reflect silently on what is happening to us and around us as we lead our daily lives.  Please don’t interpret this as a call to join a monastery or withdraw from our inter-connected world.  I think that the loss of some of these inter-personal skills might reflect some unintended consequences of ubiquitous technology.

The “app generation” may be less patient than its predecessors, expecting that the world will act like algorithms: certain actions will lead to predictable results.  And these results should be imminent and not require some possible discussion of differences with people, online and off.  Extended face-to-face conversations with friends, family may also be disappearing from our everyday existence.  But perhaps the greatest loss of not engaging in these conversations on an ongoing basis (telephones can still help with this) is our own diminished ability to empathize with others.

Some research has shown that we can still recover from our technology dependencies.  We can always make time for corrections and remember who we are – “creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships, of conversations, artless, risky and face to face.”

Ray Myers