Commentary

Whither Accountability in the Digital Age?

While reading the latest in a seemingly endless stream of reports on how Facebook consistently fails its users -- after which it apologizes and proceeds to fail them again -- I am reminded of nothing so much as the infancy of America Online. Recall the early 1990s, when AOL was the 500-pound gorilla upon which so many of us became dependent: Remember the way the AOL software wormed its way to the depths of your hard drive so that it became almost impossible to uninstall? How about the frustration of trying to cancel your AOL account? Then there were the frequent scandals involving AOL releasing sensitive user information.

With each successive "mistake" or "oversight," the company basically said, "Sorry, won't do it again," then proceeded to do it again. I won't even get into the way AOL was accused of inflating its ad sales figures by booking barter deals and ads it sold on behalf of others as revenue, so it could keep its growth rate up before its wonderful deal with Time Warner.

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Now it's Facebook that's the serial digital offender. Absorbing the latest Wall Street Journal revelations about Mr. Zuckerberg's creation (how many lawsuits are there that allege he didn't actually create it?) is like reading about a traffic fatality caused by a drunken driver who, it turns out, had dozens of previous infractions involving motor vehicles but was never imprisoned. You ask yourself, "Where the hell are our courts and judges?" Well, where are the courts and judges for Facebook? Silly me. This is the digital age. We are way beyond all that "being accountable for our actions" nonsense. Broadly speaking, it seems that the more technologically sophisticated we get as humans, the dumber we become and the less we demand -- much less get -- accountability.

Consider:

Texting while driving. No doubt, texting is a wonderful invention. But people of all ages do it while driving. We notice them in front of us, when the traffic light turns green and they just sit there. Yet while all sorts of serious experts contend that texting while driving is sooo dangerous, automakers are allowed to offer increasingly sophisticated in-dashboard, touch-screen devices that do every but brew coffee. I ask you, what's the difference between taking your eyes off the road to text on a mobile device or to manipulate the latest factory installed touch-screen gizmo?

Computerized stock trading. Gotta love those human-created computer algorithms that produced the "flash crash" in May 2010, during which the Dow Jones average dropped 600 points in a few minutes for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fundamentals of the stocks that comprise the index. When it all came tumbling down, the geniuses who set the computerized trading into motion said, "Oops, our models never considered the worst-case scenario" or similar blather. Now that the firm responsible for the flash crash has been identified in the press, do you think any of its employees will be sanctioned? Didn't think so. Will another flash crash happen? I'd bet my house on it. Which brings me to ...

Digitized mortgage records. For as long as there have been real estate deeds and mortgages, they had to be codified in writing on real paper. How passé for the digital world! (Why not ride to the airport in a horse and buggy?) Better still, let's bundle a whole bunch of God-awful mortgages into exotic securities that now are harder to decode than the Rosetta Stone. Of course we don't know who owns what home, because the computers don't know! Sheesh. Of course, since "everyone" in the business of granting mortgages is to blame for the current robo-foreclosure mess, "no one" individually needs to accept responsibility. It's like a U.S. president taking "full responsibility" for (fill in the blank). All it means is that no one in his administration will be called to account. Works every time.

By now, it should be abundantly clear that as a Facebook user, there is absolutely no way to ensure that your personal data isn't being trafficked like so much bulk produce. Also, that Facebook will never be called to account for its transgressions in a meaningful way. I have to believe that most Facebook users know this but just don't care. It's peculiar the kinds of things to which we can become attached.

Earlier this year, I deleted my FB account after some security breach or other. After having spent much time updating my status and checking on other peoples' lives, I decided I needed to recreate my existence to the way it was before Facebook was invented. (Sort of like imagining what your life would be like if the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" had never been made.) It's been pretty darned liberating. And, as it turns out, I haven't missed anything important in the world. I was aware that the miners were trapped even though I couldn't see their Facebook pages. I know what my kids are doing, because they have cell phones and email. Of course, all of my "friends" don't know what my pets are doing on a given day, but such is life.

4 comments about "Whither Accountability in the Digital Age?".
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  1. Nina Lentini from MediaPost Communications, October 19, 2010 at 8:03 a.m.

    Great rant, Steve, and so true. Count me as one of those who doesn't care -- yet -- what Facebook does with my information. I keep tweaking the privacy settings and hope for the best.

    Meanwhile, you missed the news of my 40th high school reunion, photos of my siblings and me in Boston's North End and, just yesterday, the latest post in my "Life Without End" blog.

    I have a feeling you'll get by, though. Cheers!

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 19, 2010 at 9:29 a.m.

    No responsibility yields to chaos. And you know where chaos leads. Not only are we begging to be controlled, we don't even know who is controlling us on the other side besides our assumptions. Bravo !

  3. Juliette Cowall from Godwin Plumbing & Hardware, October 20, 2010 at 8:15 a.m.

    "It's peculiar the kinds of things to which we can become attached." Sounds like domestic abuse to me.

  4. Bob Henry from Bayley Consults LLP, October 14, 2015 at 11:32 p.m.

    Just "a little" (5 years) late to this discussion . . .

    I was educated in business and engineering in Silicon Valley.  (But never drank the Kool-Aid.)

    Launched my media career in Los Angeles.

    And follow the technological trends (too many mistakenly labeled as "progress").

    Armed with a landline phone and a cellphone and a Google Gmail account, I have never seen the need to have:

    an AOL account
    a MySpace account
    a Facebook account
    a Twitter account
    a LinkedIn account
    a Google Plus+ account
    an Instagram account
    a Snapchat account
    a Tumbler account

    Am I a modern-day Luddite?

    Hardly.

    Simply stated, no social media company takes sufficient pains to endure the privacy of your data from hacking.

    Given the federal government can't protect its own civilian and military employees' personnel files from being hacked (risking identity theft).

    Welcome to 2015.

    Best advice?

    Leave very few footprints on the Web.  And only innocuous ones at that.


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