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IDG Contributor Network: Real life, why people escape it and bringing them ba ...

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Real life is difficult. It’s tedious, filled with peaks of excitement, troughs of desperation, and long valleys of sameness. It’s also filled with repetitive tasks. Due to the modernization of the labor force, cooperative and social work has been replaced with men and women interfacing with machines or having them as communication intermediaries. Consensus and collaboration have been replaced with ones and zeroes, decision trees, and metrics.

This is not only true for work, but also for education. What Fredric Taylor started to measure work performance and timing has evolved, and now we’re getting to the point where we measure everything about the workday and work habits, even if someone’s working remotely.

A history of gradual isolation

What this leads to is a sense of profound isolation, and for many, a loss of what it means to be human and alive. This is not how our ancestors lived. Even without technology, people collaborated and cooperated. When the first technological communities, such as Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs), CompuServe, Quantum Link (pre-AOL), Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) came about, one of the first things each did was to provide some sort of replacement for social communities outside the computer realm.

CB Simulator and Club Caribe from Quantum Link and MUDs, amongst others, provided those escapist fantasies. Instead of sitting isolated in the computer lab late at night, or working on an assignment or experiment, you could be transported off to another world and be someone else different, and virtually live a different life. Many people I knew from college flunked out after discovering either MUDs, IRC, or both.

This evolved to Second Life, Everquest, Ultima Online and many of the Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) we have today, such as World of Warcraft. This can also include Fortnite, PUBG, Call of Duty and social media. The next generation of this is virtual reality, which will soon be powerful and small enough to be fully immersive.

What have we created?

We’ve managed to create a substitute for reality without the direct human communication and social cues. This disconnects us from the rest of humanity, and causes people to feel more lonely, isolated, and alone. It also leaves many with a lack of empathy, understanding, or ability to separate real-life experiences and people from their virtual equivalents. All the while, the technology around us serves as a gigantic Skinner Box used to measure our conditioning and quantify our behavior and response.

We’ve managed to create generations of people who respond better to technologies than their peers, who are measured on engagement with technology, and who are, in reality, in a gigantic video game. As the past few years have shown, we’ve had significant decay socially because of this. Violent video games, according to Sestir and Bartholow, in their paper “ Violent and nonviolent video games produce opposing effects on aggressive and prosocial outcomes ,” increase aggressiveness. Anger and aggressiveness, as I’ve written about before, increase engagement, and ironically, make people buy more.

We’ve also substituted technology for parenthood and extended family interaction. Over the past 30-40 years, the cost of living has increased so much that both parents have to work, and there are also a significant number of single parents. This means that we have a number of children being left to their own devices with little to no supervision, and little control over what they do or access since security is expensive and obstructive for content blocking, and realistically, many people don’t do it.

We also remove degrees of social interaction in other ways. With the emphasis on mobility of families for jobs, extended and close social interactions with close relatives and parents as part of the immediate social circle has decreased. As this has happened, the number of elderly and older relatives staying with their children or grandchildren has decreased. Facetime and Facebook don’t provide adequate substitutes for close interaction. This potentially leads to more isolation.

What are the effects?

If we make people the hero of their own little world, it gives people more reason to stay. In the real world, they feel like they are nothing. In the computer world, they’re actually something. We have generations of people now who have significant accomplishments online in virtual worlds, and almost none to speak of outside of them. This also leads to people who promise to keep the world the same or enhance personal experiences as being in charge, as opposed to overall improvement of society as a whole, because people can’t (or won’t) see outside their immediate world view.

The algorithms that are used to keep people engaged and keep that positive response don’t have feelings, empathy, or understanding. They just understand that giving more like content means that people spend more time on the site, click more ads, or buy more items to quest on further. Keeping people angry, distracted, detached, and responding to stimuli without major consequences is now big business. Keeping them the hero of their story in a narrative that has them triumphing over the mundane and vanquishing/eliminating their foes dehumanizes those they think are different and lowers the barriers for hatred and resentment. Keeping them in a tunnel where their actions rid the world of evildoers and bring them fame, praise, and victory will keep them engaged, less likely to leave, and more likely to lash out at those that interfere with it or cause withdrawal.

This leads to minor instances and issues that would otherwise be resolved in minutes in real life, such as losing a video game, having violent consequences because people become so angry and visceral at any interference with stimuli that they fake hostage situations so that SWAT teams attack them, sometimes with tragic consequences, organize Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on people or companies they don’t like, hack websites that criticize them, and violently oppose and attack others with differing points of view, beliefs, genders, or skin color, such as with GamerGate and Charlottesville. The increased detachment leads to more anger and less empathy.

This also leads to people that can be more easily manipulated based on stimuli. If you easily understand what makes people tick, how to make them angry, and how to provide positive stimuli to them, you can direct them to do what you want. It doesn’t have to be conscious.

Was Walter Mitty an infosec professional?

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a short story about a man leading a normal, albeit boring, life, who is triggered by external stimuli he observes on a shopping trip to have realistic daydream fantasies about leading a more exciting life than the one he has. This reflects an escape from his boring life.

We see the combination of both detachment and loss of emotion/empathy/hope and need to have an escape from the drudgery of normal life and technology in Information Security, much like Walter Mitty.

Information security isn’t always exciting. It’s frustrating. We fight for budgets with everyone else and often lose. We are understaffed and underpaid. We have customers who do not understand what we do. The lack of understanding is often a gulf between cybersecurity, the IT department, and the rest of the organization. Work that should be getting done, such as organization-wide risk assessments, insider threat analysis, or data exfiltration analysis, often dies on the vine due to lack of support or understanding. There is an undercurrent of anger and resentment with many cybersecurity professionals, and a lack of empathy toward their peers.

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