The testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen sparked the latest flare-up in a never-ending series of revelations on how companies and governments mine and commercialize our personal data. In an attempt to put consumers back in the driver’s seat, recent updates to data protection regulations such as the GDPR in the European Union and the CCPA in California have mandated transparency and control as critical pillars of privacy protection. In the words of the European Commission: “It’s your data—take control!”
Empowering consumers by giving them a say is a noble goal that certainly has a lot of appeal. Yet, in the current data ecosystem, control is far less of a right than it is a responsibility—one that most of us are not equipped to take on. Even if our brains were to magically catch up with the rapidly changing technology landscape, protecting and managing one’s personal data would still be a full-time job.
Think of it this way: Being in charge of your sailing boat is absolutely wonderful if you are drifting along the Mediterranean coast on a beautiful day. You can decide which of the many cute little towns to steer toward, and there are really no wrong choices. Now let’s imagine being in charge of the same sailing boat in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. You have no idea which direction to go in, and none of your options seem particularly promising. Having the “right” to control your own ship under these circumstances might not be very appealing, and could very easily end in disaster.
And yet, that’s exactly what we do: Current regulations drop people in the middle of a raging technology sea and bless them with the right to control their personal data. Instead of forcing the tech industry to make systemic changes that would create a safer and more amenable ecosystem, we put the burden of safeguarding personal data on consumers. Taking this step is protecting the creators of the storm more than the sailors.
For users to be able to exercise control over their personal data successfully, regulators need to first create the right environment that guarantees basic protection, in the same way the Securities and Exchange Commission regulates the investment world and protects individuals from making bad decisions. Under the proper conditions, individuals can choose among a series of desirable outcomes, rather than a mix of undesirable ones. In other words, we first need to tame the sea before handing individuals more control over their boats. There are a few steps that regulators can take immediately to calm the waters.
First, we need to make it costly for companies to collect and use personal data by taxing companies for the data they collect. If they have to pay a price for every piece of data they gather, they will think twice about whether they really need it.
Regulators also need to mandate that defaults are set to sufficient levels of protection. Users’ data should be guarded unless they choose otherwise, a concept termed “privacy by design”. Nobody has time to make privacy protecting their full-time job. Safeguarding information needs to be easy. Privacy by design reduces the friction on the path to privacy, and guarantees that basic rights are automatically protected.
There are plenty of things in this world that might keep you up at night. There’s COVID-19, of course, but if you’re anxious like me you could probably rattle off a very long list of additional fears: getting hit by a car, cancer, being poisoned by an ill-advised gas station meal, getting caught in a wildfire, electrocuting yourself plugging your laptop in at a dodgy cafe. But what is likely not high on your list is fungi. Unfortunately, that might be changing.
In 2009, a patient in Japan developed a new fungal infection on their ear. The highly transmissible Candida auris fungus had been previously unknown to science (and resistant to the drugs available to treat it), but within a few years, cases started emerging in Venezuela, Iran, Russia, and South Africa.
Scientists assumed that the spread was due to human travel, but when they sequenced the cases, they were surprised to find that these strains weren’t closely related at all. Instead, scientists were seeing multiple, independent infections of an unknown fungal disease, emerging around the world, all at the same time. About a third of people infected with Candida auris die from the infection within 30 days, and there have now been thousands of cases in 47 countries. Some scientists think this sudden boom in global cases is a harbinger of things to come.
Humans should consider ourselves lucky that they don’t have to constantly worry about fungal infections. “If you were a tree, you’d be terrified of fungi,” says Dr. Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at Johns Hopkins university who studies fungal diseases. And if you happened to be a fish, a reptile, or an amphibian, fungus would also be quite high on your list of fears, were you able to enumerate them. (Fungal infections are known to wipe out snakes, fish, corals, insects, and more.) In recent years, a fungal infection called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (chytrid) has decimated amphibian populations around the world, with some scientists estimating that chytrid is responsible for population decline in over 500 amphibian species. To put that into context, that’s around one out of every 16 amphibian species known to science.
One of the reasons fungal infections are so common in so many creatures is that fungi themselves are ubiquitous. “This is dating myself, but you know the Sting song “Every Breath You Take”? Well, every breath you take you inhale somewhere between 100 and 700,000 spores,” says Andrej Spec, a medical mycologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “They’ve made it to the space station. They are absolutely everywhere.”
Humans can and do get fungal infections (athlete’s foot, for starters, and fungal diseases are one of the leading causes of death for immunocompromised people with HIV). But people are generally unlikely to fall to a fungus for one big reason: humans are hot. (Although, if you want to be the pedant at a party, you might enjoy learning that humans are generally not, in fact, the commonly cited 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That number comes from a German study done in 1851. In fact, human body temperature seems to have been cooling recently, and the global average is between 97.5 and 97.9 degrees Fahrenheit.) Warm-blooded environments, in general, tend to be too warm for a fungus to survive. One of Casadevall’s studies estimated that 95 percent of fungal species simply cannot survive at average human internal temperature.
You can see this temperature barrier in action when you look at animals that hibernate, which requires dropping their internal temperatures to survive the winter. Bats, for example, have recently suffered huge declines due to white nose syndrome, which infects them while they’re hibernating and therefore cooler than usual.
For Casadevall, these findings support his theory about the animal world’s long history with fungi. He argues that perhaps our warm-blooded natures evolved specifically to avoid the kinds of fungal infections that can wipe out cold-blooded populations.
Few people “plan for how their own deaths will impact social media,” says Katie Gach, a digital ethnographer at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who studies how people manage, and don’t manage, post-mortem social media data. To some of her subjects, “legacies” are reserved for celebrities, so “regulars” like them need not consider a parting note. If people do think about their social media legacy, she says, “they only know who should be making those decisions after they have died,” like telling their spouse their Facebook password to delete their account. Beyond that, most see social media as the wrong medium for the message, “as a tool for communicating in the moment, not as a meaningful record.”
Beyond this, decades into the internet being a daily part of our lives, most of us still either don’t know how to or are too uncomfortable to grieve online. In a 2017 study, Gach and fellow digital death researchers Casey Fiesler and Jed Brubaker found “grief policing” to be common online, where users import social norms of grieving into social media. This leads to bitter disagreements about what’s appropriate, and often shaming individuals for not expressing enough grief, for seeking attention through public grief, or exploiting death for personal gain.
For all these reasons—along with good old-fashioned fear of death preventing any planning for our ends—the vast majority of online death announcements today either feel like or are literal copy-and-pasted versions of the rote local newspaper obituary. Because this formula—date of death, age, who the deceased is survived by, where to send money in lieu of flowers—is all data, no life, these messages often get lost in our endless newsfeeds. Person A switched jobs, person B is divorced, person C died, Pete Davidson got a tattoo of Salt Bae on his thigh.
Why should we care how our deaths look on Twitter when we’re dead? While Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse announcement earlier this fall was met with mostly jeers, eyerolls, and trepidation, it should remind us how close society is to a world where the digital space is a part of our corporeal (and not only experiential) being, where institutions like birth, love, and death have the same gravity as they do in the physical world. To prepare for this Ready, Player One existence, we should start to think now about the ways to curate this world with the tools to die in a meaningful way.
Thankfully, there are already communities that are helping to craft the art and ethics of dying gracefully in cyberspace. Megan Devine, a psychotherapist, has created Refuge in Grief, an online community that focuses on reframing grief as an illness or problem to be solved to one built around compassion and understanding. Another community, the Order of the Good Death, even uses the slogan “Welcome to the Future of Death,” as a portal to critical questions about death, like how to make it more eco-friendly and equitable. The “death positive” movement, which aims to remove the taboo around talking openly about our own deaths, has also had room to flourish online, where the disembodied forum has allowed for people to more easily move beyond the taboo. Even social media platforms themselves have started to wake up to death. After years of complaints, Facebook, which has a lot of control over how grieving unfolds, in 2019 started to allow a legacy contact to have more control over the activities of the deceased.
Queering the smart wife could mean, in its simplest form, affording digital assistants different personalities that more accurately represent the many versions of femininity that exist around the world, as opposed to the pleasing, subservient personality that many companies have chosen to adopt.
Q would be a fair case of what queering these devices could look like, Strengers adds, “but that can’t be the only solution.” Another option could be bringing in masculinity in different ways. One example might be Pepper, a humanoid robot developed by Softbank Robotics that is often ascribed he/him pronouns, and is able to recognize faces and basic human emotions. Or Jibo, another robot, introduced back in 2017, that also used masculine pronouns and was marketed as a social robot for the home, though it has since been given a second life as a device focused on health care and education. Given the “gentle and effeminate” masculinity performed by Pepper and Jibo—for instance, the first responds to questions in a polite manner and frequently offers flirtatious looks, and the latter often swiveled whimsically and approached users with an endearing demeanor—Strengers and Kennedy see them as positive steps in the right direction.
Queering digital assistants could also result in creating bot personalities to replace humanized notions of technology. When Eno, the Capital One baking robot launched in 2019, is asked about its gender, it will playfully reply: “I’m binary. I don’t mean I’m both, I mean I’m actually just ones and zeroes. Think of me as a bot.”
Similarly, Kai, an online banking chatbot developed by Kasisto—an organization that builds AI software for online banking—abandons human characteristics altogether. Jacqueline Feldman, the Massachusetts-based writer and UX designer who created Kai, explained that the bot “was designed to be genderless.” Not by assuming a nonbinary identity, as Q does, but rather by assuming a robot-specific identity and using “it” pronouns. “From my perspective as a designer, a bot could be beautifully designed and charming in new ways that are specific to the bot, without it pretending to be human,” she says.
When asked if it was a real person, Kai would say, “A bot is a bot is a bot. Next question, please,” clearly signaling to users that it wasn’t human nor pretending to be. And if asked about gender, it would answer, “As a bot, I’m not a human. But I learn. That’s machine learning.”
A bot identity doesn’t mean Kai takes abuse. A few years ago, Feldman also talked about deliberately designing Kai with an ability to deflect and shut down harassment. For example, if a user repeatedly harassed the bot, Kai would respond with something like “I’m envisioning white sand and a hammock, please try me later!” “I really did my best to give the bot some dignity,” Feldman told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2017.
Still, Feldman believes there’s an ethical imperative for bots to self-identify as bots. “There’s a lack of transparency when companies that design [bots] make it easy for the person interacting with the bot to forget that it’s a bot,” she says, and gendering bots or giving them a human voice makes that much more difficult. Since many consumer experiences with chatbots can be frustrating and so many people would rather speak to a person, Feldman thinks affording bots human qualities could be a case of “over-designing.”
To be clear, space is not exactly the Wild West. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty—the Magna Carta of space law—set out a framework and key principles to guide responsible behavior in space. Negotiated and drafted during the Cold War era of heightened political tensions, the binding treaty largely addresses concerns during a time when apocalypse was a much more imminent threat than space junk. For one, it prohibited the deployment of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in space. Four other international treaties exclusively dealing with outer space and related activities followed. These include the Liability Convention of 1972, which establishes who should be accountable for damage caused by space objects, and the Moon Agreement of 1979, which attempts to prevent commercial exploitation of outer space resources, like mining resources to set up lunar colonies.
Today, what have now become run-of-the-mill space activities (think plans to launch constellations of hundreds to tens of thousands of satellites or even ambitious proposals to extract resources from near-Earth asteroids) are beholden to rules drawn up at a time when such activity lay in the realm of science fiction.
The governing documents surrounding space law are vague when it comes to many of the scenarios now cropping up, and the Moon Agreement has too few signatories to be effective. As a result, private space companies today can look at the foundational half-century-old Outer Space Treaty and the four agreements that followed and reinterpret them in ways that could favor their bottom line, according to Jakhu. For instance, efforts to mine asteroids have been buoyed by the argument that, according to the Outer Space Treaty, governments can’t extract natural resources from an asteroid and keep them—but private companies can. (At best, the granddaddy of space treaties provides no clear answer on the legality of mining asteroids.) Because private companies prioritize making money, “the basic rules of outer space need to be expanded, built upon, and enforced.”
Efforts have been made to address this problem. Regulatory bodies like the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and experts from governmental, non-governmental, and commercial space have gotten together to hash out the building blocks for new governance to address current gaps in space law. Given the flurry of outer space activity in recent years, UNOOSA has drafted some widely accepted guidelines for debris mitigation and long-term sustainability. (The guidelines suggest safe debris mitigation, removal practices, and overall good behavior, such as advising that all space objects be registered and tracked and that 90 percent of them be removed from orbit by the end of their mission.) These—like most efforts to address policy gaps in space law—are “soft law,” or a non-binding international instrument that no one is under any legal obligation to comply with. Still, some nations—like the United States, China, and India—have incorporated norms from international legal principles for good behavior in space into their national legislation for licensing space activities.
Multinational initiatives led by individual space-faring countries, such as the recent US-sponsored Artemis Accords, signal an alternative route. Named for NASA’s Moon-bound human-spaceflight program, they are general guidelines for nations to follow as they explore the Moon—namely, be peaceful, work together, and don’t leave any junk. Yet the Accords have not yet been signed by key US allies and space partners, like Germany and France. Meanwhile, a concrete path to an international agreement could come soon. In the first week of November, representatives from the UK proposed that the United Nations organize a working group—the first step in treaty negotiations—to develop new norms of international behavior beyond Earth.