Volume 34 Number 3
[Don't Get Me Started]
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
By David S. Platt | March 2019
say one thing but do another. Don’t believe me? Read on.
There’s no greater example of hypocrisy than people’s behavior regarding digital privacy. At a recent conference, I joined several other speakers on a panel discussing that topic. The other speakers solemnly intoned that privacy was important. The audience agreed, yes, important, very important. Very, very important.
I couldn’t resist pouring oil on this troubled fire. “OK,” I asked the crowd. “Suppose your government required you to wear a location tracker at all times, like a convicted felon, so they could tell where you are and where you’ve been. Sounds awful, right?” The audience nodded, it sure did sound awful. “And suppose the government could share your location with anyone they wanted, without telling you. Sell it to the highest bidder. Really awful, right?” Yes, really, really awful. “And now, suppose they made you pay for it? Fifty Euros a month, they charged you actual money? You’d storm the parliament building and throw the bums out, right?” Yells now from the crowd, I wondered if I’d agitated them too much.
“And suppose to keep you pacified, once in a while the tracker would show you a cat video.” Widespread groans; they saw my point coming, but way too late. “OK, then, wise guys, who here does not have a smartphone in your pocket right now?” No hands. Not one. “And who has bothered to turn off location sharing?” Two hands, maybe three, of 700 attendees. “So you say, vehemently, that privacy is important. But when you have the choice of privacy versus a little less functionality, like taking five seconds longer to find the nearest espresso stand, you fall all over yourselves handing everything to Big Brother? Don’t any of you ever tell me that you give a flying fish about privacy while you have your phone turned on.”
I know you logical geeks are squirming here. I am myself. In theory, we don’t want anyone watching us, but in practice, we don’t care until something bites us on the butt, and then it’s too late. When users make choices, immediate convenience always, always, displaces abstract ideals. As security expert Jesper Johansson once said to me, “Given the choice between security and dancing pigs, users will take the dancing pigs every time.”
Many writers would call here for a consciousness-raising educational effort, but I won’t. This denial, believing what we want to believe (that our phone is magically taking care of everything and won’t hurt us) simply because we find that belief convenient, is a fundamental part of the human organism. As I wrote in my very first DGMS (“The Human Touch” msdn.com/magazine/ee309884) back in February 2010: “Humans are not going to stop being human any time soon, no matter how much you might wish they would evolve into something more logical. Good applications recognize this, and adjust to their human users, instead of hoping, futilely, for the opposite.”
Human users are two-faced. They say one thing and do the exact opposite. My daughter Annabelle, now 18, is starting to realize that—perhaps the beginning of her graduation from teen to human? Lucy, 16, still expects hypocrisy to vanish when she recognizes and exposes it, and get furious when it doesn’t. She’ll learn better soon, while I mourn that she has to.
The ancient Romans dedicated an entire god, Janus, to this dichotomy (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus). His statue in Figure 1 is more than 2,000 years old. This condition—I won’t call it a problem, it’s simply a part of life, basic as gravity—is not a new one. We need to take care of our users anyway, even if—especially if—being human, they won’t take care of themselves.
Figure 1 Janus the Two-Faced God
David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should have taped down two of his daughter’s fingers so she would learn how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.