For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way – 13 time zones to be exact – from my original hometown of Rolla in south-central Missouri, on the Little Dry Fork creek. Depending on how loosely you define “city”, one could argue that CQ is the world’s largest city. In my quest for a simple life, I write these observations and admonitions from my 18th-Floor homestead.
For several weeks, I have been enjoying something that many people have wished for: I read a book, then had an opportunity to talk directly to the author about his story. Great minds think alike, we are told. However, when projecting current events into the future, two thoughtful people can look at the same situation and reach diametrically opposite conclusions – especially when they project future uses of new technologies.
In recent blog articles, I have been including excerpts from my next book, Reinventing A Simple Life. As I wrote it, this week’s blog post about transparency in our modern digital society has a generally positive tone about a future where it was impossible to keep a secret, a future where anything digital would be “public and permanent”.
Then, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I met and became friends with the English teacher, textbook writer, and novelist, Miles Hudson. In our discussions, I learned that Miles had written a novel about a future where such transparency was universal. It was about a society where everything people did, said, or saw was recorded digitally, then evaluated to decide if they were doing anything that might be illegal or offend the local mores. Coerced conformity and mandatory mediocrity, I called it, succumbing to the allure of alliteration. Certainly, the future as visualized by Miles Hudson is quite different from the more positive expectation I wrote of. I invite you to read my chapter (below) then locate and read the book 2089 by Miles Hudson. What do you think? Which of us has presented a more likely picture of the future?
Chapter 14 – Be Transparent
Do you want a simple life? Try honesty. It is by far the simplest way of dealing with people. Being honest means you don’t have to remember which story you told each person. In your reinvented life, it means being trustworthy, as exemplified by the phrase “A man’s word is his bond.” Note, being honest does not mean being gullible or naïve. Honesty does not always mean being open and trusting, or sharing valuable information with strangers. What it means is that you speak the truth.
The night has a thousand eyes. The best way to keep a secret is to assume that it is impossible to keep a secret; don’t even try. In our digital era, keeping secrets has become exponentially harder. In modern times, almost everyone has a camera in their pocket as part of their cell phone. Any attempt to do something that you would prefer to remain a secret will be doomed to fail. It is hard to deny something when you are online in a social media video. Indeed, scandalous or sensational behaviors are the most likely to rank highest on social media the following day.
Is it true? Conversely, don’t believe all the stories you see and hear online today. Just as it is difficult to keep a secret, it is equally difficult to know if something is true. “A picture is worth a thousand words” we were told in days past; the implication was that a photograph was absolute proof of something. In our digital era, this is no longer true. With modern apps, photos can be created or modified as desired. Before you accept something as true and complete, verify it by checking alternative sources. It is especially important to check details and independent sources before you pass any information along to others with your implied endorsement. Finally, in our age of rapid technological change, what was true in the past may not be true today.
Hey Seri! Assume that every message – in any digital format – will be recorded and preserved. Assume that you do not have the luxury of private messages unless they are spoken face-to-face. Even those personal exchanges may be captured by the growing omnipresence of recording devices that are part of modern life. Want proof? Try speaking to any of the rapidly increasing number of devices in your life. They respond because they are constantly listening to you. What they can hear, they can record. Don’t get excited; just be aware that you are making statements that will become digital. A new rule: Never say anything that you wouldn’t want your future boss or your worst enemy to learn about – or your child or grandchild 25 years in the future.
Another standard to apply: If you find yourself imagining a conversation where you are trying to explain or justify your behavior, perhaps it would be better to never take that action you are considering. Usually, you will not get a chance to explain before people make judgments.
Be suspicious of “everyone knows” statements. At various times, large numbers of people earnestly believed the Earth was a flat plate rather than a globe, or that the Sun circled the Earth instead of the Earth revolving on its axis once every 24 hours. Popular opinion and generally accepted explanations are not reliable sources of information upon which to make decisions.
Artificial Intelligence and data mining to the rescue. Today, the problem is not finding information, it is determining which information is to be trusted. Be highly suspicious of anonymous sources. With an internet connection and access to search engines, verification and clarification of statements, checking trusted sources, and independent confirmation is relatively fast and simple. In the future, this issue will be simplified. Imagine having an app on your digital devices to verify statements. With the development and increasing availability of Artificial Intelligence (AI), we will soon have a digital personal assistant to instantly go online and quickly delve through the immense amount of data available to advise you about the trustworthiness or background of any person or statement we encounter.
Complete transparency. Imagine if everyone had such an AI assistant in their pocket at all times. Pity the poor criminals who depend on tricking or misleading their victims, or concealing facts to be successful. What would honesty without exaggeration mean for the advertisements we receive? Complete transparency would mean that honesty was the most efficient interaction.
Action Step: Begin immediately to assume everything you do will be recorded and preserved. How would this change what you say – especially digitally? Assume you will be held accountable for every action you take or don’t take. Start today to be very careful about believing statements presented as facts. Be cautious about passing any unverified information to others. Your implied endorsement of incorrect information may damage your credibility.