I am at the San Francisco International Airport some barely recent morning, registering for a travel program called Clear when the automated kiosk assisting me makes a strange request: “Stand still while we scan your irises.” I’ve barely digested this first ask when another takes its place: this time, the kiosk wants my fingerprints. I find this slightly less alarming; I already use those to access my banking app, buy coins for my mobile games, and unlock the phone that hosts all this information in the first place. But my eyeballs — which I had only just learned could be used as ID, and from a machine at the airport, no less — my dude. Those are the windows to my soul! Ever heard of foreplay?
Clear is a private company that prescreens air travellers using biometric authentication. Becoming a member is like ordering the half-soup, half-sandwich version of TSA PreCheck: it works, if all you want is a taste and are willing to pay for it. With Clear, you don’t need your ID to go through security, but you still have to remove your shoes. You get to wait in a shorter line (sometimes), but you still have to take out your laptop. Basically, the Cleared still participate in the most annoying aspects of air travel and pay almost 10 times the PreCheck fee for the privilege.
How we decided on this valuation of convenience--it’s $179 per year—is not the point, though. My point is that some random startup casually acquired my eye-prints, and some small voice is telling me I should care more than I do. Someone out there definitely cares about this, no doubt. I’m sure at least one other traveler was not sated when a brisk Google search revealed that Clear is based in her hometown and run by a female CEO, ergo it must be a secure and entirely trustworthy business.
But I was sated. It’s the future, right? What’s the worst one could do with my retinal scans? I already gave my social security number to Camel in exchange for a pack of promotional cigarettes one time (or 12). Somewhere in Midtown Manhattan, a market-research firm knows how many condoms I used in May of 2011 (give or take). And when I think about the fact that every hard document I’ve reproduced on a digital copy machine — at work, at the bodega, at the library — is saved on a hard drive somewhere (lots of somewheres, in fact), I feel a sense of hopelessness that, in its own demented way, translates to freedom.
That’s why I unlock my phone with my fingerprint. It’s also why I talk shit in front of Alexa, why I haven’t put tape over my laptop camera, and why I still have a Facebook account. I don’t expect the worst to happen.
Because the worst has already happened. It is happening, and it will continue to happen.
I find this to be an honest, useful framework. If the worst has already happened, that means it’s survivable. And if the worst is a given in the future, too, we know that ignoring it won’t make it go away. There’s opportunity in having nothing to lose. You just need the right attitude.
Or perhaps you need the right conditioning.
Imagine: You’re 11 years old when two teenagers bring guns to their high school and kill 13 people. They injure 21 more. Your sixth-grade humanities teacher explains the inexplicable to your class after lunch period. You have to imagine that this is a first for at least some of your classmates, crying over the national news. It won’t be the last.
When you’re 15, two planes crash into two towers. You know the towers; had toured them on school trips just like all the other famous Manhattan buildings for which you know the names, if not the functions. In fact, you’d visited the towers just one week before the planes hit. There had been a renaissance fair in one of the lobbies.
At 17, your high school economics teacher tells you that social security will run out before you retire. You’ve already been paying taxes for three years. In 2018, you learn that he was exaggerating, thank goodness — by 2034, retirees can expect to receive a whopping 79% of the full benefit they receive today. You will not be of retirement age until the 2050s.
And when you’re 21, the market crashes. You’ve had a bachelor’s degree for three months. It cost $100,000 to earn, all before interest. Your class valedictorian moves back in with her parents, and no, your internship is not hiring. Five years later, the unemployment rate for people your age is almost double the national average.
My friends do not need to understand the technology behind touch ID any more than they need to understand black holes. They are not convinced that adjusting their social media privacy settings is some sort of moral duty, a symbolic middle finger to Facebook on behalf of all the little guys who understand internet economics to varying degrees, or not at all. Mostly, they were confused as to why any thinking person would have an assumption of security.
“It’s not that I don’t care about being hacked, or about my data being stolen or sold,” one friend tells me. “I assume that vulnerability because there are no physical systems or structures that have succeeded, so why would something that is essentially invisible do a better job than something tangible?”
Millennials are known as entitled, but as a group, I don’t think we could have lower expectations.
I’ll go: I don’t expect to own a home. I don’t expect to retire well, or at all. I don’t expect anyone to give me anything I haven’t explicitly asked for, and even then. I don’t expect it will ever be affordable to continue my education in any formal way. If a package gets lost in the mail, I don’t expect to see it again. I don’t expect the government or the banks or the universities to do anything that benefits regular people. I don’t expect them to hold each other accountable on our behalf. I don’t expect them to expel abusers from their ranks, or to put my safety over their legacy. I don’t expect to feel safe in large crowds or alone late at night. And I don’t expect that my privacy will be respected, online or in general.
As far as I can tell, security — whether financial, technological, physical, or emotional — is not a thing. You don’t get to decide whether some drunk asshole drinks his drunk ass off and gets behind the wheel. Likewise, you don’t get to decide if the drunk Congress or the drunk banker or all the drunk administrations of all the drunk institutions do what’s right for you. Sometimes they will do the right thing for somebody, but statistically speaking, that somebody is not you.
Sometimes the right thing comes served in a shit sandwich, or one guy does the right thing but it’s later counteracted by the next guy and just so we’re clear, it’s always a guy. Or sometimes, we learn that what we thought was the right thing was actually the wrong thing, in ways we didn’t anticipate, except for those of us who did anticipate it but were not asked or heard because we do not employ lobbyists and because the powers that be can’t listen to us until they sort out whether our bodies are legal or not.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional hearing was probably the biggest mainstreaming of data privacy issues yet, and Facebook, with its many transgressions, made for an appropriate scapegoat. But I want to know why it’s Mark Zuckerberg’s fault that American adults of voting age lack the critical thinking skills to differentiate between fake Russian bot news and The Guardian. I want to know the plan for bringing internet literacy to those who are not digital natives. I want to know why the U.S. government is being celebrated for protecting our egos and baby-proofing the internet instead of telling us the truth:
Dirty tricks are less likely to work on people with more education.
What happens when your brand of exceptionalism breeds millions of people who voted a sentient conspiracy theory into office? Where does the fault lie? After all, it’s not Facebook who’s spent decades underpaying teachers and closing schools in low-income neighborhoods. Facebook doesn’t have the jurisdiction to end standardized testing or combat the quiet continuation of white flight. Facebook’s biggest mistake? Profiting off of state-sanctioned dumbness.
We’re only supposed to be dumb enough to believe that the fight is red vs. blue and not top vs. bottom. We’re only supposed to be dumb enough to believe in Democracy the Concept™ without casting a critical eye toward its practical application. This is a dumbness cultivated by and for Washington, and Zuckerberg’s misusing of it for corporate gain almost blew the lid off the entire thing. Commence finger-wagging.
On an episode of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell argues that we should treat education as a weak-link network, where strengthening the weakest links has the most positive outcome for all. This is in contrast to a strong-link network, where a couple of superstars at the top carry the weaker players on the bottom. He illustrates this dynamic using soccer and basketball. An average soccer team with one star player is less likely to win a match than an above-average team with no star players — soccer is a weak-link sport. Conversely, an NBA team with a superstar or two fares better than a team on which all the players are equally, decently good — basketball is a strong-link sport.
Much to its detriment, America acts like a strong-link country. It is the type of place where electing one mixed-race president means we solved racism. (Imagine if the lesson we took from electing one white man was that all white men who lack upward mobility just need to work harder.) We raise up a few undoubtedly smart and deserving people in each field, send them around the world like brand ambassadors for democracy, poster-adults for how advanced and distinguished and American we are. Meanwhile, most of us back home — 78%, in fact — are living paycheck to paycheck. Is that freedom ringing? We’ll call right back after we pay this phone bill.
These are complex problems. In addition to the 3000ish words here, I have written and cut an additional 4500 trying to make sense of it all. I remain overwhelmed by the number of solutions that contradict one another, the knowns and unknowns, the countless logical ends I haven’t considered. But I eventually found my demented silver lining: America only cares about what the superstars are up to. The rest of us, from the benches to the bleachers, are left to our own devices. And we can play whatever games we want.
While grim on its face, this perspective has pushed me to take inventory of myself, my own power. What can I do right now? Am I solving problems I actually care about, or were these problems unconsciously inherited from another time, problems propagated by those with a vested interest in resolving them with more money, more power, more loopholes? Should I devote my energy to righting a system that, by design, has only consistently benefited one demographic and has yet to even prove itself as a scalable model for a generation that’s tired of the same people making the same decisions on behalf of the most diverse country in the world?
Is that a problem? Because it feels more like an opportunity, to me: a chance to exercise this cache of personal agency I’ve been sitting on, agency I didn’t realize I had or needed as I waited for America to work. It feels like an opportunity to try something else.
More powerful than having nothing to lose is cultivating that which can’t be taken. Grace. Clarity. Purpose. The stuff that isn’t Amazon Prime-able. These are the indoor plants of our being; only you can feed them and grow them and expose them to the light. It’s a lot of responsibility, and the work involved is often unglamorous. Some people think they never have to learn to care for these things because they have the means to outsource what they wish: their plants are alive on paper though they don’t know the how or why of it. And besides, can’t you see they’re a little busy trying to colonize Mars?
A respectable goal, though I might suggest to anyone faced with the choice to try taking on the inner self before jumping ahead to outer space. There’s more to unearth in there than you might think, and we need more people to understand the potential of their own organic material. We need people who appreciate the slow growth of nothing into something, who drink up the sunlight and make the air a little more breathable than before.
Because that’s it, for most of us. That’s how we build power. That’s how we, a generation of janitors for the American dream, put our trust in something real: each other. We stop trying to control the world in our heads and in the headlines, and we start controlling ourselves. We sleep. We go to the doctor. We log off. We talk about our problems. We water our plants. We collect our neighbor’s mail when they’re out of town. We take a deep breath before reacting in anger, and question whether this particular battle is worth our energy. It’s not. Why were we fighting again? We volunteer. We water our plants. We focus on ourselves so we can eventually focus on others — in a real way, in a non-transactional way, in a way that slowly but authentically strengthens our fellow weak links. We don’t wait for permission. We get over ourselves; we stop demanding perfection; we start. We water our plants. And on weekends, we play soccer.