A Mod­ern Tale of Mythic Pro­por­tions

It’s a be­wil­der­ing dig­i­tal world, so stay safe out there

Business Traveler (USA) - - TALKING POINT -

In hu­man­ity’s mil­len­nia-long search to dis­cover where it all went wrong, we’ve come up with many tales to ex­plain the sorry state of the hu­man con­di­tion. One such from Greek mythol­ogy is the story of Pan­dora’s Box. In it, the gods of Mt. Olym­pus give into the care of Pan­dora, the first woman on earth, a large box which she is warned never to open. (In the in­ter­ests of full dis­clo­sure, it should be noted that the ‘box’ in this tale is prob­a­bly a mis­trans­la­tion of the Greek word for ‘jar’ – so the first hear­ers of the story prob­a­bly pic­tured Pan­dora tot­ing around a large Gre­cian urn. But the 16th cen­tury aca­demic Eras­mus of Rot­ter­dam got it wrong, and some­how the name Pan­dora’s Box has stuck through the ages.)

Now back to our story. Need­less to say, Pan­dora’s cu­rios­ity – also a gift from the gods – prompted her to go ahead and open the box, or jar, any­way. When she did, seven spir­its of evil es­caped and spread through­out the earth, wreaking havoc. In the end, our hap­less hero­ine fi­nally got the lid back on the box, but only one spirit re­mained – the spirit of Hope.

Over the years, ‘open­ing Pan­dora’s Box’ has be­come syn­ony­mous with a seem­ingly in­con­se­quen­tial act that un­leashes vast and ir­re­triev­able prob­lems.You might say that Pan­dora ini­ti­ated the orig­i­nal but­ter­fly ef­fect – small ac­tions, big con­se­quences.

This month, Jenny Southan ex­plores an Open Door (page 14) in all of our lives, the gap­ing dig­i­tal hole in our pri­vacy through which in­for­ma­tion flows – in to us, but out from us as well.

Shar­ing our dig­i­tal iden­ti­ties be­gan sim­ply enough as an ex­pe­di­ent, a means of ac­cess­ing in­for­ma­tion we needed or wanted in a quick, con­ve­nient way – re­search­ing in­ter­est­ing ar­ti­cles about Greek mythol­ogy, for ex­am­ple, or check­ing bank bal­ances, book­ing a ho­tel room or buy­ing an air­line ticket online. And in ex­change for all this con­ve­nience, all we needed to pass along was a lit­tle some­thing about our­selves; name, birth date, credit card num­ber and even­tu­ally enough data to paint a com­plete pic­ture.

But some­where along the way, we started hear­ing about peo­ple called hack­ers, and spam­mers, and the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency, and Ed­ward Snow­den. And more than a few started to think about what hap­pens if our per­sonal data be­comes pub­lic data. Can they track in­di­vid­u­als in real life the way they do in the movies? As Jenny re­veals in her ar­ti­cle, it’s closer than you think.

How­ever be­fore com­plete para­noia breaks out and we all scram­ble to stock up on canned goods for the fall­out shel­ter, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that this tech­nol­ogy is enor­mously use­ful. It has helped in­di­vid­u­als and the global econ­omy be­come more pro­duc­tive, led to break­throughs in health care and so­cial change, and rev­o­lu­tion­ized en­tire in­dus­tries – not the least of which is travel. So don’t un­plug just yet.

Yes, we may have opened a dig­i­tal Pan­dora’s Box when we started to give away bits and pieces of our e-pri­vacy, but the world is a far more com­pli­cated place than any Greek myth. Lots of forces are at work, the most po­tent of which may be our own self-re­liance and smarts.

One of the more star­tling quotes to come out of Jenny’s ar­ti­cle was from Lind­sey Greig, chief ex­ec­u­tive of global e-pri­vacy con­sul­ta­tion ser­vice Data Guid­ance: “If some­thing is free on the web, then you’re the prod­uct.” But that’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing; af­ter all, ad­ver­tis­ers and mar­keters have been count­ing eye­balls on the screen, or the page, for decades. What’s dif­fer­ent this time, how­ever, is that the in­for­ma­tion – and lots of it – flows both ways. So it’s now more im­por­tant than ever that, as con­sumers of th­ese dig­i­tal ser­vices, we make our­selves aware of the reach, and the lim­its, of the tech­nol­ogy.

Some­thing I find dis­turb­ing about the myth of Pan­dora’s Box is the way it por­trays the spread of evil as im­per­sonal, al­most ac­ci­den­tal; open the lid and, poof!, bad stuff pops out.

That places the re­spon­si­bil­ity for the well-be­ing of hu­man­ity squarely in the hands of cir­cum­stance, when in fact we have the ca­pa­bil­ity to act as the agents of our own safe­keep­ing. Make good de­ci­sions about shar­ing your in­for­ma­tion, with peo­ple you trust, for the right rea­sons. And stay safe out there.

Re­mem­ber, the best thing about Pan­dora’s story is, some­where – maybe at the bot­tom of the bar­rel – there’s al­ways Hope. BT

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