Opinion | We’re All ‘Experts’ Now. That’s Not a Good Thing. | #phishing | #scams | #education | #technology | #infosec

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When Covid hit, we were knee-deep in spoofed phone numbers slamming our cellphones about fake car warranties. We were wading through emails trying to steal our identities. We were triangulating Yelp reviews and Consumer Reports summaries with testimonials and marketing research just to buy a new mattress or an air fryer. We were checking out our own purchases at the grocery store and waiting on hold to replace the credit card that got hacked for the umpteenth time. We were staring, bleary-eyed, into apps that promised less “friction” in our everyday lives if we would just consent to tracking — not that we had a clue as to what exactly we were consenting to. The tiny boxes to “sign up” are labeled “terms and conditions,” after all, and not “Here is how we are going to farm your personal data for profit.” And when we complained — to a manager, to a clerk, to our spouses, to the internet — someone was all too glad to tell us how we could have prevented all of this if we had just become an expert in everything.

It is no wonder that so many of us think that we can parse vaccine trial data, compare personal protective equipment, write school policy and call career scientists idiots on Facebook. We are know-it-alls because we are responsible for knowing everything. And God forbid we should not know something and get scammed. If that happens, it is definitely our fault.

It does not have to be this way.

I revisited several books over the holidays to kick-start my thinking. One, in particular, is helpful for our discussion of scam culture. “A Consumers’ Republic” by Lizabeth Cohen is the best historical overview of the concepts of the consumer and consumerism. It is the book that first came to my mind when I was puzzling over why scams have scaled and diffused. Cohen gives us two concepts to mull over.

The first is the “citizen consumer.” Cohen says the modern citizen consumer is a “self-interested citizen that increasingly view[s] government policies like other market transactions,” and we judge the institution not by how well it serves those it governs, but how well it serves us personally. We are all, at this moment, citizen consumers. You can see this right now in debates over pandemic school closures. There are a lot of tensions at play in public education. Public schools are actually defined by those tensions, particularly the tension between schools’ need to serve the market and their need to serve the democratic good. But the pandemic has heightened these tensions. More people than I could have imagined want public schools to work like personal convenience stores that serve their needs at the expense of someone else’s.

The second concept is “consumerization of the republic.” This is the idea that we perform our greatest service to the collective good not by voting or organizing or performing mutual aid but by pursuing our individual private consumption. We buy, therefore we are. (That should be said in Latin for gravitas, but I do not have the energy for a translation app.) The point is that we “vote” by buying, and that changes everything. A consumerized republic comprised of self-interested citizens who exercise their civic responsibility by satisfying their individual consumer desires is one in which we can all be convinced that we know what is best. Here’s the connection to scams: Research says that the very best scams play on our overconfidence. So a citizen consumer who thinks he or she is an expert in all manner of everyday decisions is the perfect mark for an endless string of scams. That’s anything but an isolated social phenomenon.

We’ll continue to explore these ideas over coming weeks, but it won’t be “all scams all the time.” I can only take so much.

While not riling people up about scams during the holidays I finished reading an essay about race, gender and contemporary country music. I am not a country music fan so much as I am a huge fan of storytelling and craft. Pop music, R&B and hip-hop are all about the producer. Country music, Americana and folk music are about the songwriter. I like that. What I don’t like is how the genre has been divorced from its multiethnic roots to become what it mostly is today: a cultural playground for white identity politics dressed up as innocuous middlebrow culture. But a new wave of Black artists, queer artists, Native American artists and Hispanic artists are challenging country’s music’s latent politics in a big way.

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