Machine Learning

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Nope, not gonna do it. No, no no. Please, just a “like”?

I took a few days off posting, commenting, and reacting on Facebook. It was interesting, like having an itch that I couldn’t scratch. I did go onto the site on my MacBook, I’ll confess. I felt like a lurker, an interloper, a kid looking at a candy or toy store window.

I felt left out. (Sorry Mark, but olives do not count as a vegetable for dinner.)

This little exercise got me thinking about technology and its effect on our lives. And I think that despite the Facebook craving, it’s been pretty positive. I’ll admit, though, that I’ve built a mental wall around that elephant in the corner, the privacy thing. I’ll get to that later.

I’m thinking about the first couple of months this year in Italy. Centuries ago, when The Spartan Woman was going to university in Perugia, and I wasn’t, staying in touch wasn’t easy. You could say it was romantic—we wrote each other zillions of aerogrammes, which were thin sheets of paper that you folded into an envelope. It was more expensive than a postcard, but cheaper than a letter. Even so, it was a major expense for a college kid. It was kind of adorable, though—hey Kat, do we still have them? Every so often, we’d call each other. Oooh, long long distance, such an extravagance.

Things were a bit different in January. We drove sleepily to the house, dragged our bags into the house, opened our laptops, and….arg, nothing. Our satellite Internet connection (all of 30 mps) wasn’t working. Having to buy some food, we went to the hypermarket, where I bought a SIM card from Vodaphone with 30 gb of data. I swapped iPhone SIMs, told The Spartan Woman the password, and life returned to normal, with texting, emails, Facebook, the whole works. I think we managed to feed ourselves, too.

An email and call to the provider, though, and it all worked. They just had to remotely prod our satellite dish and routers into doing their job. And for the next couple of months, while we hung around with our friends and houseguests, we stayed in touch. My dad is 87 and no slouch when it comes to a digital life. I was able to do FaceTime with him and my sister. I took my pals Dimitra and Ray on a virtual tour of the house. I even wrote an article for a travel site, and dealt with the gentle edits (thanks, Eliza!). Skype kept my phone calls to the U.S. reasonable, and I managed to interview people for a secret project—sorry, no names.

All in all, then, having this made being thousands of miles away not quite so distant. What made it easier was our walled garden. I know, I know, Apple keeps you trapped in its ecosystem (I’m writing on a new MacBook Pro, with an iPhone at my side and an Apple Watch on my wrist), but it’s an ecosystem that works most of the time. I’ll trade a bit of autonomy for a lot of convenience.

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Old MacBook Air, meet the new Pro (right).

Our devices—the complete rundown is two MacBooks, two iPads, two iPhones and a watch—just remember all the logins, from the New York house to those in Italy. When my trusty but overworked MacBook Air exhibited some keyboard weirdness that would’ve led to a $500 repair bill, I swapped it for this machine. I opened the lid, the new one started and asked me to log into my Apple account. A couple of hours later, all my stuff was exactly where it was on my old machine, all done automatically in the background. I’ve heard horror stories from the other side, and I’m just happy to be able to avoid them.

The one non-Apple device that made life more interesting was an Internet TV that we picked up, an LG. We knew that it was a so-called smart TV. What we didn’t know was that it would offer to get into our wi fi network and that once it did, with a few easy logins we were catching up on the Netflix Danish crime dramas we were addicted to. (Winter nights on the mountain are long and cold…)

Now, the privacy thing. Yeah, it’s bad. And it’s been bad. They slice and dice our data, and try to manipulate what we think. But I hope that no one who reads this is naive enough not to know that our habits have been tracked ever since companies and governments realized that our browsing habits are of interest. Yes, it’s pervasive and sinister. I’m still working this one out, though. I’ve been reading the Interwebs for pros and cons of, for example, shutting down your Facebook account. I think my going almost cold turkey earlier this week is typical. We’ve gotten used to a certain way of communicating with one another, and when that’s taken away, it leaves a gap.

So I’ll leave you with this. Try to imagine life in your great-grandparents’ time. If your family was typical, they lived in closer quarters. Maybe a crowded urban neighborhood. There were lots of means of social control—neighbors, the extended family. The church (or whatever religious institution held sway). Tabloids screamed with inflammatory headlines, just like Fox and MSNBC do today. I’d say that the combination of religious and sexual repression, as well as generally more authoritarian  institutions like schools and the military, kept people pretty much in line and afraid of going off the reservation.

Is that qualitatively any different? I have no answer right now. Maybe we should talk about it. Not here—how about in a bar, in the meatspace?

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