The Privacy Malaise

Edward Snowden unfurled a political maelstrom around privacy - the recent expiration of the Patriot Act provisions reminds us of what's at stake, and begs us to think about what we value. As the privacy debate develops, however, it seems more and more apparent that our own willingness to submit to an obscure digital matrix is neglected. There is a pervasive sentiment that we are being watched - a voyeurism of the digital age - and this translates into suspicion and resentment. Yet, an equally ubiquitous willingness to be digitally noticed seems inherent, and in dramatic juxtaposition to the fears for our privacy. Uninformed, nonchalant, vainglorious, or simply aware - we post, tweet, instagram, vying it would seem for more. I don't mean to hyperbolize the digital zeitgeist - we're not all mad for it - but I do mean to highlight a rift between what we say and what we do. It's apparent that there is an indifference wedged between our fears for privacy and our digital wants - a privacy malaise, so to speak, a dragged out discomfort not strong enough to overcome our desires for technology, but strong enough to create an articulate, albeit fairly actionless, displeasure for invasiveness.

I should also clarify that I don't mean to expound on the government's overreaching, at least at this time. I am presently intrigued by the psychology technology seems to have brought upon us - or rather brought out from within us. A recent Pew study, conducted in early 2015, found that most Americans have strong opinions about the importance of privacy in their daily lives. "The majority of Americans believe it is important – often 'very important' – that they be able to maintain privacy and confidentiality in commonplace activities of their lives." Conversely, we've done little to protect ourselves and our information from prying eyes, expected systems failures, and human error. We renege to employ the roster of self-protecting privacy-enhancing techniques to regain some control, like browsing the Web anonymously or encrypting our text messages. It's true that we more readily adopt everyday measures, like clearing cookies or browser history, using a temporary username/password, and the like - the lazy solutions. Somehow, a quixotic Facebook thinks we'll import our public PGP keys into our Facebook settings, and protect our emails. Our response is to articulate this prevailing feeling of losing control over our information. According to the same Pew study, only 9% of Americans feel they have a lot of control over how their information is collected and used. We announce our worry unabashedly, yet we do little to change it. I can't say this lack of action is attributable to only digital indifference, to not caring - there's no doubt that our knowledge and awareness of digital speak is unceremoniously awry. Perhaps more interestingly, however, our behavioral impulses knock us out of our wits. Inebriated, emotional, supercilious, bored, we indulge in our simple humanity, jumping freely, often spontaneously, from the precipice of thoughtful decision-making and into a mentality of share-happy. The result of this often unrestrained psychology to share, combined with a snooping government and the list of private institutions parleying, breeds widespread concern. But it's a slothful one in which we continue to post baby photos, self quotations, and twerk attempts anyway.The indifference is like the bottleneck in an hour-glass - muting our fears for privacy as we favor our digital gluttony.

If we imagine an America where the government keeps our private affairs off the NSA radar, we would run into similar problems - data breaching, the fallouts of human error, a feeling of invasiveness, voyeurism, but we would spend more time pointing fingers at private institutions and people. The onus of blame becomes more readily available as we peel away the layers. Our own, misguided, humanity eventually comes to the fore - undisguised as our own appetite for being digitally noticed.

Technology makes our lives more intriguing, less because it invents new things to do and more because it enables hidden habits living within us. We're being snooped on enough without the NSA. We're snooping on ourselves. None of this contradiction seems to bother us enormously - enough to even look up privacy-enhancing tools. We're punch-drunk love over the technology that seduces us. Vanity, grandstanding, time-saving. It's just too addictive, too carnal to deny.

So, we choose to wake up with a digital hangover - the breaching, the newsfeed depression, the waste of otherwise productive thinking, the highly confidential email sent anyway, the intangible fear that lost pieces of ourselves are forever out there. We've giddily driven straight into our e-Jurassic Park, enticed by the thrill, only to get entwined in the blood and bits. Add the NSA to this mix and, well, it's the perfect storm following the "just do, then think" human plight. For now, we're living the after effects - the privacy malaise.

Is there a solution? Knowledge and awareness is a given - understanding technology is a gradual undertaking that will hopefully caution us to think before we act, or at least use tools to protect us from the consequences of our over-acting. Eventually the hour glass will tip in favor of our fears for privacy. But you'd think, with the superfluous idea-making out there, that there's a Silicon Valley solution to this madness. Isn't that what the big data bubble is all about? A gold rush mentality to building solutions to the data landfills we've recklessly churned out? Why can't we harp on the same carnal human behavior driving us to divulge information, and use it toward a more useful endeavor. Beat the thing at its own game, so to speak. Dignify the digital desire.

According to the 2015 Pew Study, most Americans believe that there should be a length of time in which records of their activity can be retained. I can't say I know that there's a relationship between this sentiment and the adoption of ephemeral and anonymous apps, but I'm keen on finding out. The sad thing is, in many ways, the most famous ephemeral and anonymous apps are a reincarnation of the old, attaching themselves to an almost petty intrigue. They protect us from old habits, but abet new, perhaps even more wasteful ones. Be that as it may, we're reminded that the strongest incentive for adoption is inherent - as if technology is this race to find the hidden behaviors resting within us all. Ephemeral and anonymous have an allure the way social gazing does, a behavior strong enough to affirm our appreciation for the fleeting and hidden.

I believe that over time technology will mean a greater focus on real problems and needed utility, as opposed to enabling our wantonness. But more than this, I'm intrigued by the ways in which human rawness can be accessible for more than just a pithy fulfillment, a transient dick pic - I'm intrigued by the ways in which it can truly protect us, maybe even make a dent in the data crisis.

View Pew Study here:





Alicia and John

Thinking of John and Alicia invites a flood of memories for me - I felt I knew them, that I shared a spirit of loyalty. There was a rawness and a universality to John and Alicia - two humans whose bond was infallible and utterly fallible - and their shared greatness that touched a world over. 

As a Princeton first year, I joined the cavalcade of frosh tadpoles signing-up for ECON 101. New to the Nash Equilibrium, and not entirely sure I understood it, my classmate and I I mustered the will to walk up to John one afternoon. Coincidentally, we found ourselves in a lonely corner near the Icahn Laboratory, and we weren't going to miss the chance, I was trepidatious, but brimming with energy. "Mr. Nash, so sorry to bother you, so honored to meet you, but I was hoping you could explain your theory for me, I was hoping you could explain the Nash equilibrium." We waited for his response. John was fitful and wanting to be on his way at first. But the simple question was enough. His large, gentle eyes focused on us, and I held my breath. 

Watching a human talk about something he made, knowing so very well that it is his, is an enlightening thing. But when it's a human like John Nash, it's a defining moment. In a simple, almost child-like illustration, John explained his theory. He was patient, calm, and entirely sure of himself. It was clear, as he spoke, that genuine brilliance can be understood by everyone, even a toddler. John spoke with a kind of comfort that one might have when talking to oneself, blocking out fear, embarrassment, and pretension with shocking ease. It was all of five minutes or so, before John shuffled away. And we were left in a well-shaded corner, I thought "John Nash himself just made sense of the Nash equilibrium for me." I was invigorated. 

I didn't know what I wanted in my life at the time, but I knew I wanted that - I wanted to create my mark and explain it to someone like Nash did his equilibrium for us.  In only so many words, Nash made a discovery unfathomable for most, universal - even elementary in feel. It was as though anyone could harness it, if only they wanted to enough.  

While waiting for the train one evening, several weeks later, Mr. Nash scuttled up to me, rather pale and seemingly concerned. "You look so similar to someone I know," he said. Somewhat stricken, I smiled and thanked him. We boarded the train together, and sat across from one another. We didn't talk much, but I remember talking about where I was going, and I remember that he smiled. When the train pulled into the station, we were the last to leave, and I got up, waiting for him. But he waited longer. "I have to be on my way Mr. Nash, thank you." Rather haphazardly, we found ourselves on the platform, and Mr. Nash afforded a long glance, an almost melancholy glance. 

We would bump into each other surprisingly frequently from then on, and I would launch into nervous conversation. On one occasion, we found ourselves at the Princeton dinky several seasons later, and he asked me where I was from. "My parents are from Chile," I replied. He asked if I could speak Spanish, to which I said yes, and then he started talking about Alicia. 

Knowing some of John meant knowing some of Alicia, at least that was my experience. Seeing John's sincerity, gentleness, and brilliance was coupled with seeing the selflessness, passion, intelligence, and grandness that was Alicia.

John explained that Alicia was from El Salvador, that she spoke Spanish. I asked if he spoke any Spanish - "a little", he nodded. The dinky pulled in rather briskly, Nash retreated into a solitary corner, and I returned to my classmate David. 

I would see Alicia and Nash together several times after that - the last of which would be at my fourth reunion. I had a strong urge to speak with Alicia, a desperate desire, frankly. But the moment passed, I missed it. 

I'll return to Princeton for my fifth soon, and I will be with David, the same classmate to walk up to Nash with me that first time.

As humans, we sometimes search for parallels in others. Sometimes we just feel them. With John and Alicia, I felt it, maybe because I could see something familiar in them, something all too comforting.

John and Alicia are as much a part of my time at Princeton as my dreams and wants were. Some moments in life can be intoxicating, and they stay with you. To lose John and Alicia makes me feel that I've lost something dear and important to me. But even so, it reminds me that one day, I hope to explain my equilibrium too, and I hope I'll have a great friend and confidante to do it with. 





Does Money Buy Happiness? Princeton Sheds New Light on Age-Old Question

 Dan Price got the idea to cut his salary from two Princeton economists. 

Dan Price got the idea to cut his salary from two Princeton economists. 

CEO of Gravity Payments Dan Price has received a wealth of media attention for his decision to cut down his salary from $1 million to $70,000. His salary cut has sparked widespread praise and has placed the wage equality question in the spotlight. Dan Price revealed that he received his inspiration from research conducted by two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman.  In a work titled "High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being", Deaton and Kahneman prompt a new understanding of the age-old question, does money buy happiness?

In their findings, Deaton and Kahneman report that, "household income matters for both emotional well-being and life evaluation, and that there are circumstances under which it matters for the latter when it does not matter for the former". As defined by Deaton and Kahneman, emotional well-being "refers to the emotional quality of an individual's everyday experience—the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, fascination, anxiety, sadness, anger, and affection that make one's life pleasant or unpleasant." Life evaluation, on the other hand, "refers to a person's thoughts about his or her life", that is, a person's judgment on her or his life. Deaton and Kahneman argue that higher income contributes to individuals' life evaluation. They also argue that the effects of income on emotional well-being are fully satiated at an annual income of ~$75,000. Utilizing a new approach, Deaton and Kahneman demonstrate that the age-old question, "does money buy happiness", is much more nuanced than previous research might reveal.  

Previous research has employed raw income against subjective well-being, a careless mistake, as Deaton and Kahneman argue, that can be corrected by using the logarithm of income. A logarithmic approach focuses on the evaluation of differences versus an absolute amount, in this case an absolute dollar amount. This logarithmic transformation reveals a new and perhaps surprising light on the statement that "money can't buy happiness".

Deaton and Kahneman show us that while more money does not necessarily buy more happiness, less money is associated with emotional pain. They demonstrate that income reaches a threshold beyond which emotional well-being does not improve, and below which emotional well-being worsens -  they show us, in other words, that emotional well-being satiates with high income. One might say that money buys happiness up to a certain point, after which money does not buy more happiness. The research gets more interesting with regard to life evaluation - Deaton and Kahneman show us that life evaluation, or our judgment of our lives, does not satiate with high income. In other words, our judgement of our lives improves with high income. In summary, Deaton and Kahneman demonstrate that high income does not improve our emotional well-being,  but high income does improve our evaluation of life, underscoring "the importance of the distinction between the judgments individuals make when they think about their life and the feelings that they experience as they live it." 

Take a look at Deaton and Kahneman's findings here:






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