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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

March 23, 2013 at 7:52 PM

Flying blind? Getting real about technology and trust

The plane jumped, a familiar pang of fear hit my gut and I willed it away. Our 8-month-old son sat on his father’s lap, batting a plastic ball. I thought he was lucky, not understanding how he was in a metal tube flying tens of thousands of feet in the air.

Then I realized. I don’t understand it either.

I’ve taken off and landed God knows how many times, been suspended in the upper troposphere (yeah, I looked that up) God knows how many hours. I can spit out something about aerodynamics and describe a picture in my head of arrows around a curved wing representing wind flow and “lift.” But those are just words to me, really. Sixth-grade science class.

So here I am, flying somewhere to get there faster, and if I’m honest, I understand about as much as the babe how that works.

It was a humbling thought, and I took it further. This is not just physics and a machine. There’s a pilot up there, pressing buttons. And a system that helps him drive us. All of us. Through the air.

I looked around the cabin. None of us knows how this works. None of us could fly the plane ourselves or fix something that breaks. All we could do, if it did, is panic. But here we are, looking out the windows. Reading our Kindles. Napping.

We have no control. No knowledge. But we don’t care. We trust this technology — and the people who run it — with our lives.

Yet we’re still so conflicted about our digital security.

We understand how Facebook, Google search and other services that handle our data work about as much as we do airplanes, though we use them a whole lot more. Our lives aren’t at risk when we use a smartphone that can locate us, or when we post bits of personal information to a social network or a cloud-based service. But our livelihoods might be, if something, somewhere is compromised.

What happens to our data once we give it? We get assurances, sometimes even explanations. But let’s be honest. We don’t read the terms of service. We wouldn’t know what to make of them.

We have no idea.

Let me be clear: It is a good thing that we don’t have to understand technology to use it. That’s what lets us live such advanced, complex lives. What’s more surprising, these days, is that we don’t have to trust technology to use it, either.

A 2012 AP-CNBC poll found that 59 percent of Facebook users said they had “little or no trust” in Facebook to keep their personal information private. You read that right. Six out of 10 people who USE Facebook don’t trust it.

Is that distrust really warranted, or is it a byproduct of understanding so little about something we use so much?

Where we do have trust, we still lack control. We’re told we can keep ourselves secure on services like online banking and email by doing things like setting a strong password. But that’s about as good as buckling your seat belt. It’s going to tame turbulence. But can it help you in a crash?

And there’s another issue. Not knowing how things work is normal. Familiar. But with many digital services, we don’t even know when they break. I found out both my Twitter and Evernote passwords might have been compromised recently because those companies emailed me to say so. Would I have known otherwise?

How surreal, to fly so blind you don’t even know you’ve crashed.

Whatever the weight of our ignorance, we’re not going to slow down or back out. That would be ludicrous, considering the superpowers we’ve gained.

But it might be valuable to remember, every now and then, how little we know about this digital world we’re building, how much we use it regardless of our trust in it, and how our decisions about our digital security are, as a consequence, so often based on feeling rather than on fact.

Neither I nor my son could do anything about the occasional turbulence on our flight last week. But I did envy him.

Only I knew enough to be afraid.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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