Ashley Madison and Cultural Dopes

I can imagine a movie done in 2050 about the 2010’s.

It’ll be a period piece, with the usual cultural exaggerations done to let the viewer know it is about that era. Ever notice how movies set in the 1970’s show every house with a lava lamp and a water bed? Some music will be playing in the background to make sure you now it is 70s. Carol Kane? Elton John? If it is a movie set in an urban setting, then you will hear Stevie Wonder. In these period pieces, some cultural attitude or behavior is pointed out for the purpose of showing how naive or silly people were. If it is a movie about the 1950’s, there will always be the obligatory racist or sexist remark – often inserted into the dialogue casually in order to show how commonplace those ideas were.

The period piece set in the 2010’s will have women sporting that “thrift shop” look, men wearing slim fit clothes, and people drinking fair trade coffee. The soundtrack will be by Daft Punk or Adele. And what will be the cultural attitude or behavior that is made fun of? People’s unbelievable naiveté when putting personal information into the hands of online companies.

The databases of Avid Life Media, the company that owns the website Ashley Madison, were hacked in July of this year. Ashley Madison is a website that facilitates adultery, and has a slogan of “Life is short. Have an affair.” According to CNN money, hackers stole and posted online “32 million names, credit card numbers, email and physical addresses along with the sexual preferences of customers entered into the cheaters’ dating site.”

 

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The fallout from this is still ongoing, and will be very interesting for some time. Undoubtedly there are thousands of people on this list who are celebrities or occupy powerful positions in society, and eventually their business will be out in the streets. USA Today reports that Josh Duggar, maybe an F-list celebrity at this point, has already admitted to having an account on the site. Also email addresses from the military, Apple, Microsoft, and Bank of America were found through the hack.

The thing is, why would people even use Ashley Madison? I mean, people have been finding ways to cheat for years. Did they need an app for that? People use sites like Ashley Madison because of a combination of laziness and naiveté. Ashley Madison makes it easier to cheat, and so, just like with any other app we trade security for convenience. I use the app Runkeeper because it makes it easier to track how much (or how little) I run each week, but for that convenience I willingly give the company my email address, social media information, and the locations of where I have been each run. My laziness means my privacy is compromised.

But it is also plain old gullibility. This is probably the main reason. It doesn’t matter if the company swears up and down that their information is secure and private and no employee looks at it personally…blah, blah. There is no way that a large online company can keep their information secret. There are too many possible leaks. I don’t know how the hack happened at Ashley Madison, but the vast majority of hacks are not the high-tech kind with millions of lines of code behind them. Instead, it is simply a matter of fooling one employee to give up log-in information through a phishing e-mail. As a side note…why use your employer’s e-mail address? Instead of using military emails, couldn’t they have just created an e-mail account through Hotmail? Geez.

Believing that one’s information is secure enough that you would be willing to jeopardize your reputation (and presumably marriage) is about as ignorant as the guy who says casually in the 1950’s period piece that women are simply too flighty to hold down stressful positions of authority. The Internet can be anonymous – we can send information without explicitly identifying ourselves. but it was not meant to be private. We can make it so with encryption and passwords – but its original design was to be free and open. Not closed and private.  We put so much emphasis on preparing our workforce for the “information economy” that we neglect teaching people how to live in the digital environment.  We are a turning out generation after generation of cultural dopes* – people unaware and uncritical of the digital world they live in.

So let me set the scene for a movie done in 2050 about the cultural dopes of 2010. Some man in his 30’s, dressed in a metal blue suit, skinny tie, black rimmed glasses, and perched in front of a Macbook in a coffe shop will be saying casually – “oh, here is a website where I can put in some of my personal information and meet people to screw other than my wife. Don’t worry, it’s totally safe.” I can imagine the audience, sitting in some 3-D theater, snickering to themselves at his stupidity.

 

*Cultural dope was a term used in Harold Garfinkel’s Studies in Ethnomethodology.  I am using it somewhat at variance with the way it was originally conceived – which was to show how scientists assume that people they study are simply following social norms without questioning them.

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