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Cold Turkey

History has a way of showing us that technological advances can define an era. Even if you only think back a decade or two, you’ll no doubt remember a piece of technology that was considered as the proverbial dog’s dangly bits. Remember early mobile phones, that sole BBC Model-B computer in your school classroom or the Rubik’s Cube that you peeled the stickers off? Of course you do. In fact, as time has gone on we’ve probably come to identify even more with the gadgets we use. We’ve all got more geeky - even those who are self-confessed technophobes would grudgingly agree.

This decade’s going to be remembered for the smartphone. In just a couple of years, smartphones have invaded every single aspect of modern life.

Let’s start with the obvious - you might be reading this post on one. They’ve turned into small computers in their own right, exponentially more powerful than the computer you were using not that long ago. They’ve become a distraction of modern life. Whether you’re playing Angry Birds, or doddling your way down the street and tweeting about the contents of your sandwich, chances are you’ve neglected yours (or somebody else’s) personal safety at some point.

And even if you’re not a user, you’ve probably been cut-up by a driver who is.

It’s hard to think of a smartphone these days that doesn’t have a camera attached. Whilst it’s undoubtedly given us some opportune laughs, it’s also led a few compromising positions being posted on a random social network. A moment of indiscretion can lead to it being recorded for all to see.

But it gets worse - smartphones have even changed society’s perception of what’s “normal”. If you’re standing around in a public place without a smartphone, you’re obviously some suspicious dodgy terrorist type thing who will be taken away and exploded. If you’ve got a smartphone, you can be happily engrossed in sharing your location with ten million people on Foursquare or telling the world that you’re eating that sandwich. This is fine.

All social norms seem to have been broken. Lots of people now think it’s acceptable to interrupt your conversation and say, “hold on a moment”, as their Facebook status update or the receive an SMS - and don’t even get me started on cinemas. All those iDevices have turned into a seriously annoying light-polluter when I’m sat in the darkness of the auditorium. They’re also bloody annoying. Surely tweeting, “Watching a film.”, is a lie?

And I’m not finished yet.

If you went back a couple of decades and told your friends you were carrying had a tracking device in your pocket that calculated your position by satellites and could give away your location down to an accuracy of ten feet, you would have been considered a moron. Of course, you’re not only doing this, but doing so willingly, feeding Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare or Gowalla with precise co-ordinates and the details of that sandwich your eating - and even if your GPS isn’t on, your position can still be triangulated between the nearby mobile masts.

We’re odd buggers,really. We complain about CCTV cameras and the “surveillance society”, but undermined our argument entirely by advertising our whereabouts and actions for all to see. It’s another one of the long list of reasons why I don’t use Facebook. There’s sharing and there’s sharing. There are elements of a person’s life that I really don’t want to know. Mystery is a good thing.

Then again, if you read recent reports, smartphone owners might be sharing data without consent, anyway - which means you’ll need to do one of two things to avoid the men in black helicopters:

  • Switch off your phone’s ability to use data. (Although it’s not proven that the network operators can’t mine the data anyway)
  • Go back to a “dumb” phone.

I’m toying with both options at the moment. I occasionally use an old Nokia 8210 as an “emergency” device and I’ve found it to be extremely good at doing the basics, namely making phone calls and texting. It’s also a blissfully easy to use retro device - plus there’s a pile of them kicking around for a fiver on eBay, so I’m never too worried about loss or damage.

The whole point of this post, I guess, is to try and demonstrate that I’m not part of the tin-foil hat brigade really. Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPhone and it’s used for everything, but perhaps we should think more about the data we share, how it gets shared and who I chose to share it with - and the implications that this can have on your freedom as an individual. Is GPS tagging really a good idea? What rights and privacy are you forgoing now at the expense of not having the choice later?

Because if you say, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you don’t need to worry”, you really don’t understand.
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