Are we tech-savvy or just a "confederacy of dunces?"

Are we tech-savvy or just a "confederacy of dunces?"

I held out as long as I could, I swear, but like so many others who were deeply opposed to joining such a monolithic public forum, I caved — and now I have 233 friends on Facebook. I didn’t even know I had that many friends, but therein lies one of the many attractions of Facebook: an instant feeling of community.

And yet, what is Facebook really?

At best, a cyber repository of faces (a “face-book”) like the yellow pages and at worst, the single largest collection of public and often not-so-public information about us?

I agree there are a raft of privacy and other issues relating to the way we share information online about ourselves and others, and the way companies like Facebook manage this information. On the other hand though, I’m involved in raising funds to build a school in memory of a friend and humanitarian aid worker who was killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2008, and where did our web presence get started? On Facebook. We now have well over 400 friends and counting, which is important to us because her family has pledged to provide our school with a brick for each friend/fan of the site. How cool is that?

So yes, it is incredible to be able to use sites like Facebook to facilitate the acquisition and dissemination of information, and in this regard, I’m becoming far more tech-savvy. On the darker side though remains the question of what happens with all of the information that is floating out there in cyberspace and beyond — private or not. In this regard, I’m pretty sure I’m wearing some form of “dunce’s cap” but let’s call it the cap of the wilfully unaware in this instance.

Being unaware isn’t always without consequence though.

Research In Motion Ltd. has been in the news quite a bit lately because countries including India, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are now demanding access to proprietary RIM technology in order to monitor domestic BlackBerry usage — access which could jeopardize not only data encryption technology developed by RIM, but more importantly, the individual rights and freedoms of BlackBerry users in these countries who may not even know they are vulnerable.

In Saudi Arabia for instance, BlackBerry users are mostly individuals and not enterprises. The inverse is true in Canada, in case you were wondering. Saudi Arabia is known to be a very conservative country and arguably, in any conservative country that restricts contact between members of the opposite sex, being able to text message, e-mail, call, and instant message on a mobile device is going to be a very attractive feature for some individuals.

Given the pressure countries are starting to assert on a company like RIM, is there a risk that communications between individuals in countries like Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. will eventually be restricted, arbitrarily cut off, or punishable if an agreement between RIM and the Saudi government permits access to encrypted data including text messages and call logs? Is all of this starting to sound a bit like George Orwell’s vision in 1984?

I do wonder sometimes if I need to know more about what goes on behind the scenes vis-a-vis the data/information I transmit or whether I’m better off not knowing any more than I already do.

What does it mean when a country is able to threaten to ban access to the services of a company (public or not) and a confidential deal is struck to prevent that from happening? Should we be concerned? Censorship, privacy, security, regulatory — whatever you want to call it — there are a lot of unanswered questions that in my opinion have broad-reaching implications.

Or maybe it’s all just a big red herring because we all know that governments monitor the transmission of data and information already anyway.

On a much lighter note and getting back to Facebook, how does one discretely un-friend someone from Facebook or politely decline an invitation to become a friend? Does a notice go to that person advising them that you are no longer interested in being friends or that you don’t intend to?

One is at times left with the perplexing task of trying to figure out how to be polite in cyberspace within the limited confines of a drop-down menu. My own policy is to advise friends (in the real world) that no, I will not become friends with their kids, even if I like them. My policy vis-a-vis people I would never introduce to my parents (in the real world) is to simply ignore them (in the virtual world).

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. A Confederacy of Dunces was written by John Kennedy Toole and published posthumously in 1980.

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