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Amalia Negreponti Headshot

Somebody You Used to Know Forever and Ever

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Last summer on a remote islet in the Cyclades my world broke. A complicated incident involving a malfunctioning electrical socket, a bikini insidiously entangled with my iPad's charger cord and a mindless tug I still haven't forgiven myself for, led to my beloved machine taking a fall from the dressing table where it had been reverentially placed. Despite trying to break its precipitous fall with my leg, we ended with a nearly broken leg, a half-broken iPad screen and a fully broken heart.

My whole life was on that thin screen. That was when I realized how much I am defined by my online existence and how much of me can be found scattered across the Web. So in an age when such a great part of our lives are spent online, how can we wish to leave no digital trace of who we were, what we did, what our life was about? Is it reasonable, or human, to (be able to) pretend to control/contain our lives only to want we currently approve of: the people we are at that precise moment in time, the people we are currently in touch with, and -- inevitably -- those facts and people who show up connected to us in official records (births, marriages, deaths, arrests, court decisions, real estate, jobs). Is there really nothing more to us, nothing more to our lives than that? Than what on earth are we doing constantly wired?

Of course, my dependence on the mobile Net and the trust I place in major Internet companies to act benignly with all the sensitive information I sometimes willingly (credit card information), sometimes unknowingly (like the snippets of personal data collected from WiFi networks of a large number of homes that cars equipped to photograph streets for Google Street View were passing), opens up a whole galaxy of potential abuse that I am vulnerable to.

A part of this abuse -- whether actual or merely possible -- is currently at the heart of the increasingly, legal criticism leveled against the mobile Internet in its entirety, as well as against the giants that dominate it.

In the non-legal sphere, the level of disquiet raised in the public by regulators, personal data monitoring services, groups campaigning for anti-tracking rights for consumers and privacy advocates, is currently at a high. Companies like Michael Fertik's Reputation.com sell online reputation management (ORM) and internet privacy to those who can afford to buy.
In her book "Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other," MIT professor Sherry Turkle notes that many people are prone to soul-baring in a way they are not in the 'real world' because "they hope to be repaid in intimacy. The online setting increases the number of people to whom one applies for a caring response. But it also opens one up to the cruelty of strangers."

Yet the world -- and I mean the non-virtual one -- is also full of cruel people; it also has many kind ones. Strangers can be cruel and they often are. On and off the Net. Yet not, in my experience at least, more than people we are close to.

This particular kind of cruelty is manifested in "Somebody That I Used to Know" the runaway global success of the Gotye (featuring Kimbra) song. "I'll admit that I was glad it was over/But you didn't have to cut me off/make like it never happened/and that we were nothing/... Now you're just somebody that I used to know."

Its massive appeal proves it obviously hit a chord with many people who have found themselves painted out of pasts they shared with other people. These same people have probably done it to others too.

We aren't born cruel or kind. Our actions are what define us as such, and our actions are largely dependent on the values of the family, society and culture we are raised and live in. Now, the mobile Internet and economic slump we in the U.S. and Europe seem to be settling into, is changing all that. It is now pointless to act and eventually become inhuman. Our Wall Street: Money Talks era has melted into a crisis ignited by crooked Maddof-like villains and irresponsible financial institutions that should've known better and should also not have played so free and easy with other people's' money. Gordon Gekko is now a touchfeely Clooney in the Descendants.

It is true that there has to be some amount of state, or international, regulation of some areas of the Web (especially in respect to terrorism, child pornography, and money laundering). Yet, there is a definite line to be drawn where that regulation, especially when it's pre-emptive, should be no more. The Obama's administration red line was the SOPA and PIPA proposed anti-piracy legislation. As for CISPA (the Cybersecurity Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act), it has raised worries about monitoring and tracking of Internet users -- this time not by Internet companies but by the federal government. In a recent article of his, Dr. Patrick Lin, of California Polytechnic State University, advocates authorizing counter-cyberattacks by private companies, which have been the main victims of harmful cyber-activities by foreign actors.

Whatever the case, the Internet is our first, and currently our only, success in the quest for a kind of "forever" and "togetherness." Through its amazing innovations we stay 'on' all the time, connected to one another, alive through this connection of ours. Forever and ever and ever. It goes beyond us, it chronicles and witnesses nearly every moment of our life, and I suspect it will probably be the one who remembers us, most devotedly and diligently. Some would call it an immortal version of ourselves. Others would call it God.

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