A Modern Tale of Mythic Proportions
It’s a bewildering digital world, so stay safe out there
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