Wednesday, June 1, 2016

On being off the grid (more or less)

I know I am in a very weird little minority here, but I hate cellphones and smartphones. Actually, I'm skeptical about any mobile PDA-type device, but I truly detest mobile phones. Now, before you get all in my face about it, please understand: I get it, I totally do. Mobile phones have made life exponentially more convenient (albeit all that quicker with all the texting, tweeting, FB-ing, etc. going on.). We can be in touch with whomever we need to be when we need to be whether it's a life-or-death emergency or simply checking in with someone.

But, can you remember what life was like before we all carried these electronic tethers? Years ago, when cell phones were first becoming ubiquitous, I weighed the convenience (and admittedly the time-savings in emergencies) of carrying a phone against the freedom and solitude of not having one and I decided against having one, relying on land lines instead.

Thus far, I feel I made the correct decision as I cherish the quiet time to myself by being off the grid while in transit, for example, far above having to be always on top of what's happening elsewhere in my life. I do not feel the need to always be available and if something is important enough, anyone can leave a message on the voice mail of my land line and I will return their call as soon as I can. I'm never away from a land line of some sort for more than an hour or two most days, unless I am on vacation or travelling or something where I actively choose to be incommunicado.

But, that's just the thing -- it's my choice, my decision. I have control over what and when I deal with things in my life and instead of jumping to respond to every little text, tweet, email message or FaceBook post, I can breathe a little, relax a little and deal with things at a measured pace. Nothing is that important that I need to be reachable 24-7. I realize that there may be instances where having a mobile phone would be a great advantage or even life-saving (caught in a traffic accident for example), but I am willing to bet against those odds and pay the price for the peace, freedom and control of dealing with my life at my own pace.

You may be thinking that you do have control by turning off your phone, but honestly, I think the convenience of carrying one would require strong self-discipline to keep it turned off -- the knowledge that the phone is there would be enough to keep curiosity piqued that I think the urge to turn the phone on and check in would be irresistible. That's just me, though -- if you are that disciplined, you have my admiration in spades!

Then there is the tracking aspect. This prospect terrifies me. Not having a smart phone of my own, I can't honestly profess to know a lot about them, but I do believe there is a method, a setting of some sort, that turns the tracking "beacon" off. Apparently. And now with this as incentive, I can see more and more people actively choosing to allow themselves to be tracked through their smart device.

According to the article,

"This is how it works: Passive sensors installed in the mall (or bank) pick up Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular signals from personal electronic devices carried by shoppers, with each device represented on a computer monitor by a separate moving icon.

The installed sensors poll the environment every six seconds, quickly enough to give retailers the ability to send out a coupon to a customer with a loyalty app as they near a store." 


"But the real value to retailers is that the data can be gathered, analyzed and distilled to provide information on what people are doing in the mall. Where do they go after they leave the food court? How much time do they spend in the bookstore? Are they visiting daily or weekly? How many new visitors come to the mall each day?

... compares it to knowing a person's licence plate number — knowing it tells you nothing personal about the owner or the driver or its other occupants." 

Personally, I feel that what I'm doing in the mall, where I go and how much time I spend is none of the mall's damned business, even if they are not collecting any personal data about me, know nothing about me (apart from where I am and how much time I'm spending there), and to them, I'm "just an icon". The comparison to a license plate number would only be valid if we were photographed where ever we drove and parked. Knowing a license plate number may not tell you anything personal about the owner or the driver or its other occupants, but it also doesn't tell you where the vehicle has been, where it is going or how long it stays in one spot.

What really frightens me, though, is how readily we as a whole will adopt this, led like lemmings over the cliff of privacy invasion by the promise of coupons and loyalty points. As the article states,

"But shoppers who download loyalty apps should know this: Permission granting a retailer the right to gather more detailed information about you through your phone may be buried in the terms and conditions of the app.

"The question is, who reads the terms and conditions?"...  (emphasis mine)

Less than three per cent of people in malls have loyalty apps, ... but the upside is that having the loyalty app can open up a whole new experience for some customers, creating the possibility for retailers to provide individualized service to customers as they arrive in-store, based on their shopping history."

I am as guilty as the next person for not reading the fine print, although I am starting to get better at it as more and more potentially egregious breaches of personal privacy become possible as a result of technology and our implicit agreement to it.

We should always view new technological offerings with a healthy dose of skepticism and not be dazzled by the initial potential or by promotional "carrots" (customized digital coupons, for example) aimed at getting us to adopt the offering. Learn to read the fine print, painful as it can be, because it is certainly eye-opening what you may have to give up in order to participate in a new service or program. We need to reflect on what we must give up versus what we are getting in return to truly decide whether it's worth it.

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