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The Digital Self: Confessions of a terrified telecommuter


Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has, as you may have heard, officially killed telecommuting for Yahoo employees as part of her strategy to bring the aging Internet giant back into fighting condition. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” reads the HR memo that officially reshackled Yahoo’s remote employees. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.” It’s a bold move – perhaps even a good one for the company, which has struggled to keep up with the likes of Google and Facebook. But if you work remotely, as I do, there’s only one real reaction to this news: pants-soiling fear.

Thanks to Yahoo’s latest corporate directive, employers across the country now have an example to point to as evidence that allowing workers to do their jobs from outside the confines of an office is bad for business. And as a myriad of Mayer’s supporters have pointed out, there is ample evidence that face-to-face interactions remain the best way for a team to collaborate, regardless of the communications tools made possible by the Internet. That’s bad news for anyone who makes a living from home, who may be looking at the possibility of more companies following in Yahoo’s footsteps.

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On the other side, opponents of Yahoo’s telecommuting ban, especially working mothers who often rely on telecommuting to keep their families afloat, cite study after study showing that remote workers are actually more productive than their cubicled counterparts, take fewer sick days, and are generally happier employees.

Working from home has taught me the art of self-discipline.

From my experience, both sides of this issue are right to some extent: In-person meetings are better than any Skype chat you can have. And not having to commute, leave work for the kids, or worry about what your hair looks like in the morning are all major perks that help keep employees happy. True as these arguments may be, however, they still fail to convey the reality of working remotely.

For the past two years, I have made a living writing and reporting for Digital Trends (mostly) from my home office in upstate New York. And every day has been both a blessing and mildly terrifying – not because I was afraid of losing my job, but because proving myself from afar brings its own set of challenges.

For starters, I am constantly afraid to leave my desk for fear of missing an instant message from someone who needs to talk to me. Sure, I could always put my status to “away,” but I do that too many times, and how does that look? Like I’m off screwing around, that’s how. So even though I may be at home, with all the conveniences, I rarely take time to even microwave a hot dog for lunch, let alone go out for a bite.

It can also be difficult to prove how much work you’ve really accomplished during the day. As a journalist, I have the benefit of highly deadline-based work; every time I turn in a story, my editors (bosses) can see that I’ve been carrying my weight. It becomes far more complicated, however, when working on longer projects with lots of time spent with less quantifiable value, like research, interviews, and dreaded transcriptions that seem to take a lifetime to finish. Projects that don’t pan out after spending hours or days doing legwork … well, those make me want to just crawl in hole and never come out.

The third, most commonly cited, downside to telecommuting is that it is next to impossible to stop working. My days begin the moment the alarm on my iPhone pulls me out of slumber, and slaps me in the face with the morning’s news. Sure, I’m working from bed – but that also means I’m working from the moment I wake up. As for ending the work day, well, that never really happens. Once I’ve eaten dinner, taken the dog out, and done a few chores, I inevitably find myself back in front of my computer, working the night away.

My life as I currently enjoy it would not be possible without the ability to telecommute

Those are all significant downsides, to be sure. And others may have even more complaints. But the fact is, working remotely is still an incredible experience. Aside from the obvious benefits – being able to live outside a major city, not having to commute, not paying for someone to walk my dog every day – working from home has taught me the art of self-discipline.

When there’s an Xbox staring you in the face, saying “Play me! Play me!” you have to learn how to stay on-task. When there’s nobody staring down your neck, you are completely on your own to complete the job at hand – a fact that is both terrifying and massively rewarding when you get the hang of it. As a result, I have indeed found that my days spent working from home are the most productive.

Because of this, telecommuting might not be right for everyone. When I tell other people, including my parents, that I work remotely, the most common response I get is, “I just couldn’t do it. I’d never get anything done.” For those people, working remotely should not be an option. But for me, it’s not only more comfortable, it’s more efficient.

My life as I currently enjoy it would not be possible without the ability to telecommute, nor would the lives of the increasing number of U.S. workers who do their jobs from somewhere else. Perhaps that’s why Yahoo’s decision to ban the arrangement is so disappointing to so many people – we’ve made lives for ourselves thanks to telecommuting; and Yahoo has, inadvertently, made those lives far more difficult to live.

In the end, I only hope that Mayer’s decision to do away with remote workers is seen by other employers as a move that made sense for her business, not all businesses; or at the very least, for some workers, but not all workers. For decades, we’ve been hearing that the Internet would free us from the confines of the past, including cubicles and gridlocked traffic. The shackles have started to fall off. Let’s do what we can – by proving to employers that telecommuting can work, and by trusting remote employees that do a good job – to keep from clicking the locks once again.

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The Digital Self: Thank Edward Snowden (even if you want him in jail)
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If you believe the National Security Agency's sweeping surveillance of innocent American citizens constitutes a gross violation of privacy, you're more alone than you might think. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, "most Americans" – 56 percent – believe the NSA's firehose collection of our call records and Internet communications "is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism."
For someone who falls firmly in with the 41 percent of Americans who, according to Pew, view the NSA's spying practices as "unacceptable," this statistic is about as surprising as the surveillance itself – that is to say, not surprising at all. In fact, this latest survey shows that our views about sacrificing privacy to keep terrorists from killing us and our fellow citizens has remained virtually unchanged since 2006, when news of President George W. Bush's warrantless wiretap program first came to light.
All it takes is one disgruntled data broker employee or overreaching Google worker (or NSA IT guy) to throw the lives of innocent people into disarray.
Nor is it surprising that the entire story about mass government surveillance has shifted from what is being collected and the constitutionality of the collection, to debates about what kind of a person Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old contracted NSA systems administrator who leaked the top secret NSA documents, is. Some call him a hero, while others say he is a criminal and a traitor who deserves to be in prison for endangering American lives.
We could debate all day about whether the character and motivations of Snowden even matter if the information he exposed is true. We could bicker about his decision to flee to Hong Kong rather than stay in the U.S. to face his consequences head-on, or judge him on the fact that he never completed high school, or college (but still managed to rake in a six-figure salary).
Of course, we can – and should – continue an earnest national conversation about how much privacy we as a people can reasonably abandon in order to prevent further terrorists attacks on the U.S. – a danger that, though scary, is far less of a risk than getting killed in a car accident or a gun fight.
Unfortunately, focusing on these (completely valid) topics of debate distract us from two other important factors that we must consider: The power of one individual to expose our private lives, and the possibility of how our data might be used for purposes that have nothing to do with keeping us safe.
If Snowden's leak proves anything, it's that any organization – even one as tightly controlled as the NSA – is essentially powerless to stop rogue individuals from running amok with sensitive information. This is particularly frightening considering the untold thousands of individuals who have access to more than just our call records, from our Social Security Numbers to our private communications. All it takes is one disgruntled data broker employee or overreaching Google worker (or NSA IT guy) to throw the lives of innocent people into disarray, either by exposing our data online, or using it for their own personal gain.
Which brings us back to that Pew survey. We are apparently okay with giving up privacy to prevent terrorism. But what those who subscribe to that view fail to realize is that handing over our data, whether to the NSA or Facebook, means foregoing our ability to control how that information is used. Privacy is not just about keeping secrets; it's about maintaining control over the important details of our lives.
At this point, it is impossible to say exactly what the NSA does with our data; stopping terrorists may only be a small part of how our information is used, or how it may be used in the future. It is the unknown possibilities allowed by access to troves of data about millions of people that pose the greatest risk.
The good news out of all this is that Snowden's revelations seem to have sparked the debate we should have been having about privacy and data collection all along. We have been all too willing for too many years to play willy nilly with the pieces of information that, collectively at least, expose us to the whims of countless strangers and organizations that have far more control over our lives than we have over theirs. So thank Snowden, even if you want him behind bars.

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The Digital Self: Is the Xbox One the latest privacy fiasco, or am I just a crank?
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I swear it's watching me, the latest model Kinect, with its unblinking 1080p eye, its microphones recording my every breath. It can see my heart beating in my face. It might even know what I'm thinking. I better not imagine anything incriminating, I think, my hand stuffed halfway down a can of Pringles.
Just then, four perplexing propellers pop out from the corners of Kinect's sleek black body and buzz to life. I jump in my seat, spewing crumbs on the floor. Kinect lifts off from atop my flat screen to hover about five feet in the air, where it stays, whirring away.
I cough, stunned. A tiny red light on its face flickers on for a millisecond, a sure sign that Microsoft's people are listening. I feel in my gut that I'm not alone.
"Honey, would you like some pasta?" my girlfriend asks from the kitchen.
"Creeping Jesus! Be quiet. Just be quiet," I tell her, my voice dwindling to a whisper. "They're. Watching. Us. They'll know that you're here. They'll know we eat pasta."
"But … what are you …"
"Quiet!" I say. "Don't come in here. In fact, don't move at all. Who knows what this thing is capable of?"
Slowly, carefully, I slide my body upright, taking deep, slow, even breaths. My heart begins to race just to spite me, and I wish I'd taken that yoga class more seriously. Damn, now that thing probably knows I did yoga. What about fear? Can this thing detect fear? Surely it can.
As I inch closer to the door, out of the Kinect drone's view, my dog, asleep a moment ago, bounces to his feet, ready for action. His chain collar jingles, and the red light flickers on again.
I blurt out a hearty "NOOOO!" just in time to see a blue, fanned-out laser beam fire out of Kinect's front. I leap on the dog, trying to protect him from its glare. The laser does a swift scan of the room, its red brain blinking madly.
Three thousand miles away, a Microsoft worker in a bright blue lab coat chuckles. He now knows every book I own, what couches I have, the ID number on my dog's tag, and my preferred flavor of Pringles. "Excellent," he says to himself. "The boss will be pleased."
Problem is, I might be nuts – that thing they call people when their interpretation of the world fails to reflect reality.
Believe it or not, this is the scene that popped into my head when Microsoft unveiled the new Xbox One and Kinect gaming system last month. Because I am who I am, because I deeply distrust corporations and the higher powers of modern life, the launch of a device that puts Internet-connected cameras and microphones and facial recognition technology into American living rooms evokes a special kind of panic. While most of my Digital Trends colleagues cheered Microsoft's sweet new tech, salivated over improved features and better gameplay, I boiled with dumb anger. I screamed, "What the hell is this bullshit?!" I slowly curled up into the fetal position and sucked on my thumb. What can I say? That's just my normal response to what I see as brutal abortions of privacy.
Over the past two years, I have written hundreds of articles warning my fellow technology users about the perils of the privacy violations I see throughout our digital universe. Fear Facebook. Damn Google. Block the advertising cookies, and delete the apps. With each new product release, I envision a tired Orwellian existence in which our personal details are used to seduce us into doing things that boost bottom lines, pinpoint our actions, and scare us into submission – the Xbox One is merely the latest source of my fear. Install Adblock Plus and Ghostery. Subscribe to a VPN. Search with DuckDuckGo. If you were really smart, you'd only log on using Tor – yes, Tor. Don't know what I'm talking about? Here, let me explain again.
This message of prudence and caution is, I believe, imperative. Refusing to blindly jump onto the latest product helps protect you from the nefarious Dr. Evils of Big Business and Big Government. It empowers you to take back control of the tidbits of your life that you shed every time you log on and check in. It returns at least a sliver of the privacy you lost along the way, and leaves you better fortified for a future in which They have the power to ruin your life thanks to the information you foolishly handed over in exchange for some shitty messaging app.
Problem is, I might be nuts – that thing they call people when their interpretation of the world fails to reflect reality. After all, almost none of us has experienced a single negative consequence as a result of the demon called data collection. And it's entirely possible that few ever will.
When it comes to most of the scary Big Brother stuff, however, we have few instances on which to hang our tin foil hats.
Instead, we can connect with one another like never before in history. We can experience cultures and people that we would never encounter offline. We can communicate with anyone for free, no matter where they live. We can watch our babies take their first steps, or engage in revolutions, from a thousand miles away. Playing video games is a global experience. Tasks that once took days now take seconds. Every map is at our finger tips. Every question has an answer. Our lives are easier, better than they would have been without all the amazing technologies now at our disposal.
Yes, there are instances in which the types of privacy practices I espouse are important. There are people whose lives have been upended because of the Web. People are fired from their jobs for saying something nasty about an employer on Facebook. Battered women are tracked down by violent spouses using people searches. Homes are robbed thanks to oversharing traffic apps. During the Boston Marathon Bombing, an innocent man was unjustly accused of murders he didn't commit. And those who do commit crimes have found themselves behind bars for failing to employ even a modicum of privacy.
When it comes to most of the scary Big Brother stuff, however, we have few instances on which to hang our tinfoil hats. Most of the doomsday scenarios I've apprised over the years have failed to come true – so far, at least – and instead wallow in the purgatory of far-off hypotheticals. And it is for this reason, I believe, that most of you out there don't worry about this stuff in the way I do. You don't turn into a proselytizing crank after you watch a Microsoft press conference, or avoid a Facebook app simply because it wants to post on your behalf. You see fun, productivity, possibilities, while I see a new nightmare at every turn. I keep banging the drum; you keep ignoring me.
So tell me, which is it: Am I the crazy fool? Or are you?

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The Digital Self: Tomorrow’s politicians are ruining their online reputations today

When you think of former U.S. congressman Anthony Weiner, what's the first thing that comes to mind?
If you said "penis joke," you have company. The passionate Democratic politician – who resigned from Congress nearly two years ago, after a young woman blew the whistle on his penchant for tweeting and emailing pictures of Weiner Jr. to women other than his wife – officially announced his candidacy for mayor of New York City last week, via YouTube. And so far, all anyone can talk about is whether voters will look past his throbbing indiscretions and give him a chance at a comeback. Shocker, I know.
It is far too early to tell whether Weiner has a chance at winning NYC. But whatever you think about him running for King of the Big Apple – if you think about it at all – one thing has "certain" scribbled all over it: We will one day see Weiner as a trailblazer for the next generation of politicians; the young men and women who have come of age, and will come of age, with the Internet and all the other tools of embarrassment that come with it.
For us voters, his moonshot for political redemption primes us for a future in which we must constantly decide whether a foolish tweet, damning Facebook photo, or tactless forum joke are enough to disqualify someone from the running.

We must all come to terms with this because many of us who have been online most our lives took far too long to realize exactly how to conduct ourselves on the Web – some of us still haven't figured it out. We brush aside warnings about a lack of privacy online, and fail to take seriously the maxim "once on the Internet, always on the Internet." And the kids and teenagers who haven't yet realized their impending political ambitions have even more to loose.
Many of the politicians currently in office rose to power during an entirely different time. Every whim they had as an angst-riddled teen was not posted for all to see, forever. They could attend a booze-fueled party during their college days without hundreds of photos from the shindig ending up on Facebook. As Google Chairman Eric Schmidt explained at the Telegraph's Hay Festival on Saturday, "We have never had a generation with a full photographic, digital record of what they did." 
Now we do. The upcoming generation lacks the luxury of private lives – they are constantly monitored, recorded, tagged, and shared. Who knows how that information could be used against them by future opponents? (The answer, of course, is any way it can be used.)
No matter how conscientious the upcoming generation is, we as a nation are sure to have our share of Weiners.
The good news is that the future leaders of our nation are, on a whole, becoming more cautious about their private information. According to a recent joint study by the Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center for Internet Society, 60 percent of teenagers on Facebook have set their privacy settings to "friends only," and 57 percent have held back from posting something online because it might make them look bad later. Neither of those statistics is particularly reassuring – but it's certainly better than the types of privacy steps my friends and I took back in the ICQ and AOL days.
It's also safe to assume that many (but certainly not all) of the kids that go on to become worthy political leaders have better sense than the majority of their peers. These are the kids that excel at school, volunteer in their free time, devote themselves to sports or music, and are planning from elementary school to become "someone important." Hopefully this type of diligence also translates into not getting too comfortable with Snapchat.
Then again, one could argue that the failure of future politicians to protect their privacy now benefits us all later. Rather than childhood shenanigans getting swept under the rug, we as a society will have the unprecedented benefit of knowing ash piles of gritty details about candidates – few behaviors, good or bad, will go uncovered. Transparency – intentional or not – disinfects. 
No matter how conscientious the upcoming generation is, we as a nation are sure to have our share of Weiners – those with political ambitions whose recklessness can be easily documented by anyone with quality Google skills. And it will be up to us to decide where we draw the line. Do we render someone unelectable because she once posted a picture of herself taking a bong rip during spring break? Is someone un-American because they once "liked" a Karl Marx Facebook page? This kind of dirt will come up in future elections. It is up to us to decide how much we care. 
Of course, we will likely never trust someone who did exactly what Anthony Weiner did – condemnation of infidelity, digital or otherwise, isn't going anywhere. But his candidacy does offer us (or New Yorkers, at least) the opportunity to consider how we will handle thoughtless online behavior in the future – because, whether we like it or not, penis pic politics is here to stay.

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