Ideas·2020 Massey Lectures

We need to reclaim our lives from our phones and 'reset,' says CBC Massey lecturer Ron Deibert

There's a problem with that device in your hand — your phone that makes you anxious when it's not near. Renowned tech expert Ron Deibert says that needs to change. The 2020 Massey lecturer suggests we need a 'reset' and in his first lecture, Deibert sketches out the layered problem — and how he sees a way forward.

Renowned tech expert Ron Deibert exposes the disturbing impact of the 'always-connected mega-machine'

'Look at that device in your hand,' says Ron Deibert in the first instalment of his 2020 CBC Massey Lectures. 'You sleep with it, eat with it ... depend on it.' The renowned tech expert exposes deep systemic problems in our communication ecosystem and shares what we need to do about it. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

*Originally published on November 9, 2020. This is Part 1 of the six-part 2020 Massey Lecture series Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society. Find the rest of the series here.

"Information and communications technologies are, in theory, supposed to help us reason more effectively, facilitate productive dialogue and share ideas for a better future," says renowned technology and security expert Ron Deibert.

"They're not supposed to contribute to our collective demise."

Yet here we are — sleeping, eating and panicking if we can't find our phones. It's not just our own connection to these devices, but a whole infrastructure and system that needs to change, Deibert warns.

"The world you're connecting to with that device increasingly feels like a major source of personal risk. But it's also become your lifeline now more than ever," says Deibert in his 2020 CBC Massey Lectures, Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society. The book version of the lectures is published by House of Anansi Press.

Deibert says these problems aren't ones that individuals can resolve on their own — they form a web of inter-related issues. He points to the structures of social media technology, how they are addictive by design, and how our constant engagement is part of a business model that works more for social media giants than for their users. 

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"That's not happening in a vacuum. That's happening in a social context where there's increasing loneliness. Loneliness is off the charts in industrial democracies and advanced democracies," says Deibert.

With 93 per cent of the world's population living within reach of mobile broadband, Deibert's warnings are more as relevant as ever.

(Ben Shannon)

Deibert is the director of Citizen Lab, a world-renowned digital security research group at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. He has overseen and contributed to more than 120 groundbreaking reports covering cyber espionage, commercial spyware, internet censorship, and human rights.

"Our use of information and communications technologies is now less a series of deliberate, self-conscious acts and more like something that just continuously runs in the background. Much of it is rendered invisible through familiarity and habituation," he says.

Deibert notes that people can no longer draw a clear separation between their "normal" and "digital" lives, referring to us all as "cyborgs."

"Disparate systems have converged into an always-on, always-connected mega-machine. This profound shift in how we communicate and seek and receive information has occurred largely within the span of a single generation."

I received a chunk of the Snowden disclosures — and what I learned blew my mind

3 years ago
Duration 8:18
Ron Deibert was sitting in Toronto's Pearson Airport when he got a call from a CBC journalist who wanted him to take a look at a cache of files — materials that would turn out to be part of the Edward Snowden leaks. Ron is the founder and director of Citizen Lab, a research centre that studies digital surveillance.

Deibert's research has revealed a destructive impact on what he refers to as a "communications ecosystem" on civil society.  He says his aim for the 2020 CBC Massey Lectures (which are in six parts this year) is to synthesize what he sees as an "emerging consensus about the problems related to social media and — by extension— the organization of our entire communications environment."

"Think of this as a diagnosis of social media: an identification of the illnesses by a close examination of their symptoms. I organize these problems as 'painful truths' — 'truths' because there is a growing number of scholars and experts who acknowledge these problems, and 'painful' because they describe many serious and detrimental effects that are unpleasant to contemplate and difficult to fix."

But his lectures don't focus merely on exposing the "painful truths." Deibert wants a global conversation to begin. He's calling for a "reset" — a new beginning to move forward.

"A reset is a way to terminate a runaway process that is causing problems, and start over anew. Users of Apple products will be familiar with the "spinning beach ball" that signifies a process that is stuck in a loop, while Microsoft customers will no doubt recall the blue screen of death. We've all been there at one time or another," Deibert says.

"A reset implies beginning again from well-thought-out first principles. It allows us to discard the errors of the old ways of going about things and start over with a solid foundation."

CBC's partners in the Massey Lectures series are Massey College in the University of Toronto, and House of Anansi Press, publishers of the book of the lectures.

* The 2020 CBC Massey Lectures are produced by Philip Coulter.

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