My networked, always-on life just hit a wall, and it has given me a chance to consider how quickly and completely digital experience can go from feelings of empowerment to feeling utterly abandoned.

I created a Gmail account a few weeks ago, and gave it the most perfect, alphanumerical and punctuated password imaginable. When I tried to sign in today, it didn’t work; when I asked for a reset, the contact email was clearly not mine. Somebody had imagined my password and hacked my account.

Turns out there’s very little that can be done to get it back. I clicked through numerous Google pages but found no help, and when I filled out a request for “free” email support (with a 3-day wait) a form required my credit card details anyway. Right.

Unlike real relationships or experiences in the real world, there’s a finite list of actions available to me. I guess I’m supposed to Tweet my problem and maybe somebody will send me a link to a secret customer service page, or someone at Google will trip over this essay and offer me the help it made an explicit point of refusing (or hiding) when I first looked for it.

But I’m not feeling empowered by my digital tools this very moment. In fact, I feel abandoned or, at best, manipulated. Digital empowerment works until it doesn’t. It’s appropriately binary, and it’s scary.

Now, not only have I hit a virtual wall, but I’m thinking about the virtual walls that surround me. Web pages designed to utz me toward a particular behavior, and otherwise intended to obfuscate what the designers don’t want me to do. Actions pre-programmed into things like iWork, which now forces me to store Pages documents in the cloud unless I override it with my own selection. Search results that are prioritized by mechanisms I cannot begin to fathom, and ads teed-up to me based on interests of mine that I didn’t know anybody else knew (or location-based deals popping up on my smartphone as if I’m being constantly watched).

Where’s the real power in this digital ecosystem of ours?

I know I’m supposed to think I have it, because I can click on what I choose and actualize a lot of intellectual and commercial interests. I’m a willing participant in a variety of communities spread across all of space and time. I can opt-in to services that make my life easier. Hell, I can shop in my underwear. I live like a king!

But when that ecosystem falters, it reveals itself to be a double-edged deal. It turns out I’m dependent on it functioning correctly, and that it exploits on my participation as a source of its monetization schemes. It tells me what to see and do as I click on my preferences. It uses my data just as I access data from it.

When it stops working, all the benefits I took for granted just evaporate. And I have no ability to do anything about it.

It’s like I just took the red pill. The network ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Image via flickr

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