Online autonomy matters now more than ever

Claire Maurer, Columnist

Right now, we are witnessing life moving online – something that has been happening for several years. You can participate in weddings, religious ceremonies, work meetings, happy hours, concerts, yoga classes and routine doctor’s appointments without ever leaving your living room. People are seeking advice and guidance via the internet now more than ever. However, our online lives can also be dominated by private interests, political agendas and manipulation in ways we often do not realize.

All of our online activity creates data for a massive for-profit industry that aims to manipulate our beliefs by controlling our online lives. This time of crisis teaches us that when our personal network goes online, all of our interactions can be translated to our online lives. In the past, we have seen how online connectivity makes extremism more accessible and how online news can create an echo chamber of information that affirms pre-existing beliefs. 

Connectivity and technology has the potential to change the reality of how we live.  We must decide what parts of society we want technology to alter. Technology could make medical care more efficient and less expensive. It could change the way we commute, drive and travel. It could change the way we make decisions about what books to read, who we vote for and what groceries we buy.  

Perhaps our decisions have never been autonomous or based on individual reasoning. Rather, they have been based on whatever influences exist around us – mostly the communities we are a part of. As the line between online and offline selves continues to blur, the forces influencing us continue to blur as well.

We seek advice, knowledge, inspiration and connection online. Online activity can be a place where private corporations mine data and manipulate what we see, and it can also be a place for interaction with those we love and those who help us. 

This pandemic is a test of how we work to improve life by connectivity, but also how we understand ourselves as the internet intervenes in all aspects of life. As individuals, we can assess what parts of our online lives provide a positive impact and are worth sacrificing some privacy for, and what parts of our lives we want to remain offline. The world will continue to move online, but we must take control of how we want this to happen.