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Sometimes, quantitative = qualitative

Part of my Unwriting series.

Precedent is a dangerous thing.

Armed with the right web searches, you can easily find social security numbers, usernames and passwords, passport scans, board meeting minutes, and other sensitive information. The standard response is, “Those things were already exposed to the public on the internet.” We wrap ourselves in that righteous cloak, certain that someone else may have screwed up, but not us. We even frame it as a positive, the same way the security community used to advocate full disclosure. Doesn’t information want to be free? Shouldn’t they thank us for warning them?

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I’ve parroted that party line, deflecting the blame and inflating my ego, but I’m not so convinced now. Web search may have developed incrementally, layering advance upon small advance like all good science and technology, but we’ve layered many advances since the days of webrings and hand curated directories. Searching the web is unnervingly powerful now, and that power can dig up youthful indiscretions on Usenet just as easily as it can repair your elliptical machine. Without a modern search engine, unless you knew where to look and what to look for, you’d never find those messages.

Tipping point is an apt description here, Malcom Gladwell notwithstanding, and search engines are just the most common example. The creepiness threshold for online ad targeting and the uncanny valley are others, just like the proverbial frog who ignores the rising water temperature until it boils him. Slippery slope and thin edge of the wedge are blunt, overused arguments, but they may apply here. Even if the steps are small, take enough of them and you end up a long way from home. When you wake up in a different country and you can’t speak the language, eat the food, or even find a bathroom, it doesn’t matter that you walked instead of flying. You’re a foreigner, lost in a foreign land.

The next time you trot out “precedent,” or “minor,” think about the big picture. Go ahead with that step, sure, but consider where you started and how far you’ve come. Be honest. Be dispassionate. What fundamentals have changed? What can you no longer take for granted? What secrets, what weapons, what irreversible life changes is your fun little side project unearthing right this minute?

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One thought on “Sometimes, quantitative = qualitative

  1. …not to take away from the post itself, but looking back on this a year later, i have to pat myself on the back a little bit for that picture. so funny. bad precedent indeed.

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