Over the weekend, a story about an iPhone app captured the attention and ire of the tech world. Girls Around Me is a simple app that takes your location, and then queries Foursquare and Facebook’s location APIs to find any girls (or boys) that are geographically close. You’re then shown a map, powered by Google, with faces (pulled from Facebook profiles) pinned to it. Clicking a face lets you see more information about the person (again pulled from Facebook).
Ostensibly, you’re meant to use Girls About Me to help you decide which bar or nightclub you should visit, but of course the tech world — and even the mainstream media — is instead labeling it as a rapetastic example of the lack of privacy afforded by Facebook’s default settings. You see, Girls Around Me wasn’t hacking Foursquare or Facebook to get this information: It was using open APIs to access information that, by default, Facebook and Foursquare make public. This isn’t a new feature of either social network, of course, but Girls Around Me is just the perfect, creepy illustration of why some information — like your location — should be friends-only by default.
The problem with all of these apoplectic, spittle-drenched reports about Girls Around Me is that they assume the worst. They assume that people will use this app to prey on men and women. Theyassume that these people are all being hoodwinked by Facebook and Foursquare into sharing their location.
These reports don’t for one minute think that this is just a fun app — an app that most people will run once, laugh heartily (or a little nervously), and then never look at it again. These writers discount beyond all possible doubt that the app will be used for the forces of good, rather than evil. What if a group of guys wants to make sure that the bar they’re going to isn’t a sausage fest, or vice versa? (What’s the female equivalent of a sausage fest, anyway?) What if the girls or boys that share their location data want to be found?
In short, all of these reports are predicated on the assumption that we’re living in a world that is packed with rapists.
I hate to break it to you, but we’re not. The world is also not full of terrorists, or muggers, or people who will steal your children while they play in the yard.
While it’s certainly true that Girls Around Me could make it easier for a predator, and I agree that social networks need to tighten up their default privacy settings, these are merely symptoms of an underlying problem. We live in a culture of fear — and it’s all technology’s fault.
One of my favorite examples is society’s belief that the world we live in today is somehow less safe than X years ago. It’s not. Over time, crime has generally decreased. The worldwide life expectancy is now 67 years — at the turn of the 20th century, it was just 31. In the US, violent crimes are at a 40-year low. Child abductions are dropping. Worldwide, quality of life is increasing not decreasing; in the last 20 years alone, 2 billion more people have gained access to safe drinking water.
Yet here we are, living a life of fear. In just one British study, 13% of respondents thought they would be the victim of violent crime in the next 12 months — and yet the national violent crime rate is just 20 per 1,000, or 2%. Why? Because of technology.
High technology’s biggest strength is the near-instantaneous processing and dissemination of information. 200 years ago, you had to send a letter. 100 years ago, if you had access to a telegraph, you could send a short message around the world in a few minutes. Today, you can update your Facebook status, check in on Foursquare, or write a blog post at any time of day, from almost anywhere, instantly.
On the one hand, this is immensely empowering. The internet, and the free flow of information and ideas, is one of mankind’s greatest innovations, and probably one of the reasons for the worldwide decrease in crime — but it’s also the vehicle by which our culture of fear is perpetrated by governments and Big Media.
As computer networks have grown, so has the coverage of newspapers and news broadcasts. Prior to the arrival of wire news services in the 1950s, news coverage was almost entirely local. In those days, the only murders, rapes, or abductions that you heard about were local — and because violent crimes are incredibly rare, you only really heard about serial killers. Today, with world-spanning news agencies and communications networks, news coverage is global — and there’s always a murder happening somewhere. In all likelihood, reporting itself hasn’t really changed — the headlines of yesteryear were probably just as hyperbolic — but now, a news service has access to so much newsthat it can pick, choose, bias, and emphasize whatever it wishes for as long as it wants. If it wants to run a month of stories on (apparent) prevalence of child abuse, it can.
The sad fact is, gristly crime like murder or rape sells papers, even if it’s completely unrelated to the lives of the readers. If a news channel that survives purely on advertising revenue has to decide between an international politics story, or a story about an abducted child, it’s fairly obvious which one they’ll choose. Sex sells — sexy subjects sell.
We haven’t even mentioned the blogosphere, either, a terrifying realm where fact and fiction is conflated and misreported on a criminally massive scale. Depending on which blog you read, you can satisfy just about any conspiracy theory you fancy. Irrespective of whether it comes from a news site, chain email, blog, or meme, it’s almost impossible to surf the web without having to tread through falsified, inflated, or out of context news.
In other words, the world might be the safest it’s ever been, but when faced with a constant barrage of FUD from almost every news source, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. It is this fear that politicians then use to pass laws that destroy your civil liberties and march ever closer to a Big Brother state, or to justify war. It is this fear of the world itself – oh my God, there’s a murderer around every corner! — that makes you susceptible to more fear, in a horrible, noose-like negative feedback loop.
Fortunately, our biggest enemy in this case — the internet — is also our strongest ally. Sites like Wikipedia provide excellent, accessible analysis of the actual state of play, and many governments now do a good job of publicizing national crime and quality-of-life statistics. Read and watch the BBC, a public service broadcaster which is chartered with providing impartial, both-sides-of-the-coin news.
The main thing, though, is to remember that every journalist, blogger, news anchor, or media company wants to grab your attention in some way. Usually this is very easily done by appealing to your most basic fears, and by only telling you one side of the story. If everyone was wary of this, and proactively sought out the other half of the truth, we would suddenly see the modern world for what it truly is — an awesome, interconnected, global web of 7 billion people leading better lives than at any time throughout history.
* * *