2010 might be best remembered as the Year of Information Anarchy. The headlines were filled with instances of digital information run amuck and wreaking havoc. The year brought increasing threats to privacy, safety, identity, national security, intellectual property and critical infrastructure.
What’s going on? It seems the more digital stuff we create, the more it defies our efforts to contain, control and conform it. Why is information so much more unruly than it once was? Why won’t it behave?
The answer can be found deep down in the bits that represent all digital information. Bits are nothing more than strings of 1s and 0s that we assign to fragments of information. Link enough bits together and you have a word, or a novel, or a picture, or a movie, or a sound, or a symphony.
If there is one thing we know about bits it’s that they don’t give a damn. Bits don’t make moral judgments. Bits can’t discern between right and wrong. Bits don’t care what information they convey to whom or when. Ask a bit if it is ethical to pass on a secret that someone has told in confidence and all you’ll get is a blank stare that looks something like: 00000000.
Bits don’t care about such things as privacy. They run around naked all the time and don’t care who sees them. They are never shocked and never feel shame. They don’t care where they go, who they are seen with or what others think of them. They don’t care who knows what they did in the past, what they are doing now or what they will do in the future.
Bits are harmless. They have no animosity, hidden agendas, nefarious motives or criminal intent. Conversely, they are not crusaders, do-gooders, saviors or saints. They care as little about helping as they do about harming.
But for those who create, manipulate, access and distribute bits, life is not so simple. Once bits are put to human purposes, things get messy. When we users string together bits into information we introduce all manner of inflections: goals, opinions, beliefs, principles, morals, ethics, and so on. Unlike the bits themselves, we do care who sees what, when, where and why. Access is a big deal. Privacy is a top concern. We imbue bits with motives and emotions that reflect our own. In a sense, we make them human.
Where digital information is concerned, intent is everything. And so, it’s no surprise that the headlines in 2010 were filled with stories of bits being used in ways that force us to look in the mirror and sometimes cringe at what we see.
Some of the highlights from the headlines:
- Computer malware (bit manipulation by malicious coders) has been in the news for years, but reached new heights this year when the so-called Stuxnet virus hit Iran and a few other countries. Apparently intended to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program, the attack became an instant digital milestone because it sent a clear message that our essential infrastructure and transportation systems, which are ever more bit-centric, are vulnerable to takeover or shutdown by an interloping piece of binary code.
- The headlines screamed in agony in 2010 as cyberbullying (bits used to insult, embarrass and torment someone via the Web) was directly blamed for at least two youth suicides. Dozens of other incidents in which bullying migrated from the schoolyard to cyberspace shocked and alarmed us to the point where schools, parents, governments and police around the world began mobilizing to stomp down cyberbullies with new programs, initiatives and laws.
- 2010 was also the year that personal privacy was declared an endangered species. One story after another documented the fact that our personal lives are under siege by commercial data miners and identity thieves. Increasingly, our profiles are accreting in the servers of marketers, advertisers and security agencies. The bits that represent who we are and what we own have set up a marriage of convenience with those who wish to exploit or persuade us, and like any marriage, things are fine until they’re not.
- The commercial threats made possible by large volumes of circulating bits hit the news, too. 2010 was a bumper year for intellectual property theft and copyright violation. Illicit downloading of content reached an all-time high. Many authors, filmmakers, musicians, photographers, artists and all sorts of other content creators spent the year watching helplessly as their works pulsed their way through the Net with no regard for ownership or rightful compensation. As a result, 2010 produced a rising trend in both IP litigation and legislation.
- Even the news made news, thanks to bits. Not a newspaper alive—and there were fewer alive in December ’10 than in January ‘10—failed to carry at least one story about the end of journalism as we know it. Not only are online news sites and blogs decimating the traditional, advertising-based news publishing model, they are also eroding the basic tenets of professional journalism. This was the year journalists truly came to grips with the fact that in the online world of news and information there is a strong disincentive to being thorough, accurate, ethical and balanced.
- Perhaps the granddaddy of all renegade bit stories this year was the release by WikiLeaks of the first of hundreds of thousands of U.S. State Department dispatches. Setting aside the legal and ethical issues of WikiLeaks itself, the incident signifies the rapidly increasing porosity of data systems made possible by all those innocent little 1s and 0s. The secrets of governments and organizations lost their hermetic seals in 2010 as bits squirted out of their hiding places in all directions.
2010 may well be the year we lost control of our bits once and for all. The little buggers have gone rogue. They won’t stay in place; they won’t stay in line; they won’t go back in the bottle. Our absolute power over our bits has come to an end and with it our quaint analog notions of command and control.
What now? How do we deal with all these disruptive bits and their disturbing manifestations? How do we live in harmony with all those mischievous digital scamps?
We know bits breed exponentially, so rules and regulations, lawsuits and prosecutions, initiatives and programs, will only serve as temporary stopgaps. To successfully adapt to the Digital World we need to change the way we relate to our bits. We need to transition to a digital worldview, a Literacy 2.0 perspective, in which we recognize and accept the natural unruliness of digital information.
To get things started, here are four resolutions for 2011 to help us see more clearly, understand more deeply and attune ourselves more gracefully to our bit-saturated world:
1. Stop swimming against the bitstream. Accept that bits can’t be controlled; only influenced. Develop a better understanding of how to guide them in the directions we want them to go.
2. Focus on intent, not outcomes. Take care with the motivations, purposes and principles behind our actions and the bits will take care of themselves.
3. Become digitally literate. Being digitally literate means not only knowing the tools and services but also having the discernment, perspective and judgment needed to apply them effectively.
4. Don’t just expect the unexpected, relish and embrace it. In a world of swirling and churning bits, every day is a surprise party.
If we attempt to control and manage our bits like digital lion tamers, they will inevitably turn on us. If we relax into the realities of a world in which information has a mind and will of its own, we will instinctively adapt to the world we have created.
Give it a try. It will only hurt a little bit.