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January 2, 2010

Technology changes meaning of connections


Ten years ago, we were breathing a sigh of relief after the Y2K doomsday scenarios did not come to pass. Many schools, businesses and agencies did invest in technology to avoid costly and inconvenient computer meltdowns, but, by and large, the new millennium arrived without incident.

Little did we know: The real disaster would occur 21 months later, and with it would come new fears and new challenges.

It's impossible to imagine what lies ahead in the next decade, except to say that there will be many more challenges: the continuing threats of terrorism and infectious diseases; the need to rein in health care costs while also providing high-quality care for our aging population; and the ongoing work to strengthen our economy, protect our natural resources and find new, more-sustainable ways to produce food and energy, to name a few.

Technology will continue to evolve in ways we can only begin to imagine, and we will need to figure out how to balance privacy and security. The controversy over the high-tech airport scanners that might have detected the materials used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of trying to ignite explosives aboard a Northwest Airlines jet as it was coming in for a landing in Detroit on Christmas Day, is a case in point. Are we willing to let airport screeners do a virtual strip search every time we fly if it means keeping us safe? According to the Associated Press, 19 U.S. airports use full-body imaging scanners that can detect dangerous items hidden beneath clothing, but privacy concerns have prevented more-widespread use.

Terrorism is just one front in the erosion of privacy, and it's the one where most people (including me) are probably willing to give up a little freedom in exchange for safety. But developments in technology over the past decade are creating many other privacy issues.

With cameras at traffic intersections, GPS navigation units in our cars, and most of our daily transactions, from buying groceries to pumping gas, being done electronically, it is virtually impossible for the average citizen to be anonymous. We are constantly generating a stream of information.

Of course, there are benefits to this technology. For example, the transition to electronic medical records has great potential to reduce errors and improve efficiency in health care "" but it also creates new privacy concerns about how our information will be stored.

In the past 10 years, our cultural ideas of "public" and "private" have drastically changed. With the advent of social networking sites, blogs, Twitter and the widespread use of increasingly high-tech cell phones, it has become much easier "" and more acceptable "" to share what would, not so long ago, have been considered "Too Much Information." Some of this information is harmless (Does anyone really care what Ashton Kutcher is doing?), but the blurry line between what's public and what's private has also given rise to challenges. Today's parents are urged to be on the alert for teens "sexting" (sending sexually explicit texts and photos by cell phone), leaving themselves vulnerable to sexual predators by posting personal information online, and becoming victims of (or participants in) cyberbullying. Today's college students are warned not to post inappropriate Facebook photos or YouTube videos that could come back to haunt them when they enter the job market.

The whole notion of what it means to be a "friend" has also changed "" from a private relationship pursued mostly in person to an interaction that can take place entirely via computer or phone and that is often very public. In fact, social networking is so much a part of our culture that the New Oxford American Dictionary recently chose "unfriend" (the act of removing someone as a "friend" on a site such as Facebook) as its Word of the Year for 2009.

Aside from becoming a hermit, it seems impossible to preserve privacy in a world where it's now possible to use a palm-sized device to take video of someone without their knowledge and stream it live, on the Internet.

It's hard to imagine what new trends and technologies will emerge in the next decade, but one thing is certain: Those of us who remember film cameras, rotary phones, manual typewriters and paying in cash will need to learn to adjust to a world where very little is private.

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Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@hotmail.com.