The Fallacy of “Opting Out”

PJ Rey has a typically well-thought out post at Cyborgology on the problem with “opting out” media, with some significant implications for the way we think about technology and cybersecurity. Even a CTOVision reader may have a friend or relative (or both) that just doesn’t get why Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn is so important. Like some kind of suburban John Conner, they’ve gone “off the grid” and are proud of it. But here’s the problem: in a sufficiently connected world transformed by information communication technologies (ICT), to “opt out” is to engage in a futile battle to escape society itself:

We, as consumers, would experience the non-optionality of Web-based technologies like video streaming services (e.g., Netflix and Hulu) if we were to try to rent DVD, because these technologies have led to the shuttering of video rental stores across the country and the remaining localized rental options like Redbox offer only a limited selection of the most popular movies. Another example is the dominant role that Facebook has taken in event-planning. In many social circles, event invites are sent exclusively through Facebook, so that, if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t get invited. While you can still chose to not be on Facebook, you cannot choose to live in a world where events are not organized via Facebook. Similar issues extend into the workplace. With almost half of all employers admitting that they use social media profiles to screen applicants, we have to begin wondering if non-users will simply be dismissed as “unknown quantities.” …..In all these cases, social media may not have a direct impact on the lives of non-users, but non-users are nevertheless part of a society which constantly changes as the mutually-determining (i.e., “dialectical”) relationship between society and technology unfolds. Social media is non-optional: You can log off but you can’t opt out.

Rey comes to the basic insight that technology really is not something that people “log into” or “log out of,” which implies the idea of cyberspace as a kind of separate, Tron-like realm distinct from everyday life. One can really say the same thing about cybersecurity. You can’t escape the problems of securing information anymore than you can opt out of securing your own house. As I’ve said during one policy meeting at a DC think-tank, cybercrime is not more of (or less than) a problem than the everyday concern of using an ATM in a rough neighborhood. Information security is distinguished only by the fact that it deals with information–it is as much of a real and basic concern as any other form of personal or corporate security and will grow even more so as more of our everyday lives become networked to an world-spanning grid. Just as Rey’s users that fail to participate in the growing information sphere are indirectly punished by loss of social opportunities and the shuttering of obsolescent technologies they rely on, ignorance or denial about the importance of proper information security is inherently self-defeating.

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