The Big Munge

“Give me your email address so I can call you!” she said.

At first, I thought I misheard. She must have have muddled “call” and “write.” So I asked for clarification.

“Whatever. Call. Write. I prefer to call people at their email addresses. Or message them.”

Then I realized that she was referring to a FaceTime conversation, using her email address (an thingy), which she used interchangeably, and in fact, indistinguishably, with SMS/MMS. And I had a series of discomforting thoughts  about the pros and cons of paying attention to extricable components within what I’ll call The Big Munge. By that I mean the grand unified stew of communication protocols and data that Millennials kids these days consumers interact with so differently now, and have so many different assumptions about.

It’s a good thing, actually, these new advancements in communication and media-rich applications that act on your behalf, even from your pocket. The only reason that something like The Big Munge might cause any kind of malaise is because it didn’t use to be this way, and sometimes, something feels missing; it is change, and change is discomforting, but we should take note of what we’re losing and what we’re gaining.

For instance, there’s already been some discussion about the fate of the URL, which may be be hard to keep track of on mobile devices, and which is the most separable component of The Big Munge; if, like a car mechanic, you ever wished to peep under the bonnet, you’d be looking for individual URLs or socket requests, following the API trail for authentication, data, and whatever else. The lock icon appears briefly on iOS7+ devices, giving us the idea that we’re on a TLS connection (for better or worse). In the Big Munge, you don’t really put in a URL anyway. You put in a series of words — natural language, really — into a search engine that you trust, and you get back something authoritative enough (e.g. I often type in “install RVM” into the URL bar, which doubles as an invocation to a  search engine, since I can never remember the right URL for RVM, and then take what I get after glancing at it briefly). Visual inspection of the URL can help prevent some attacks, but isn’t really the point. We shouldn’t have to examine a string to make sure we’re safe; lock icons are a thin veneer of optics on a system that itself was compromised a few weeks ago.  But that begs the question: if we’re not going to look too closely at the URL for what we get back when we want “things” that we ask for (e.g. “Bank of America” or “The Cure’s Friday I’m in Love”), how do we determine that we’re getting a resource back that’s entirely sound?

Well, maybe for banks, you owe it to yourself to check the results of what you get back — examine the URL on your mobile device. Or of course, do what you’re strongly encouraged to do, anyway, which is to download the mobile app that’s listed for your bank in the iOS store or Google Play, vetted for quality and non-shadiness. That way, you simply trust the App Store to shield you from the URLs that  the banking app invariably uses on your behalf. You authenticate into the app and you’re done. It pulls your bank account out of somewhere you assume is legitimate. Your assumptions are probably sound.

And for a piece of music, you take what you get if it makes you happy. If you’re not using an app like Spotify (which you’re authenticating to using your Facebook credentials) or SoundCloud (which you’ve connected to all other social accounts) or Rdio (Facebook again), and simply using the web in a browser, the top result for “The Cure’s Friday I’m in Love” is YouTube user polydorclassic’s music video on YouTube. OK, good enough. (Is this “Polydor Classics” the same as Polydor Records, you wonder, for all of a few seconds, but whatever.) A search for The Beatles’ “When I’m 64” reveals YouTube user’s locuradeloco’s music video, in which it looks like s/he just slapped the album cover on top of an MP3 and generously uploaded it. It doesn’t feel official, but you don’t care. You’re gratified.

Which I think is what The Big Munge does — it gratifies you. You trust the search engine to gratify you. You don’t really care about “official” anymore, especially not about music. Your bank, yes. RVM, yes. But you still don’t use the URL too much.

Is it any wonder that there’s a new-new phone number, that doubles as email, VOIP username (I still like Skype), and cellphone number? Till it fell out of favor, a lot of people were using Facebook Messenger as their default messaging app. I’ve exchanged tomes of back and forth about dinner reservations with some of my friends who relied on FB messenger. I still do, but now, I go to in my device’s web browser. I don’t even know if my addressbook has their phone numbers. Other big apps, like Pinterest, have a messaging feature now. Which brings me back to FaceTime: it’s a proprietary inside-a-silo messaging format for all the cool kids with iPhones. My SMS/MMS messages turn blue, and I know they’re in my digital peer group, unlike Android users. Many of them share pictures, videos, and their lives using Apple’s technology equivalents, without really thinking too much about it. The atomic unit of contact is no longer a specific cell phone number, but a bigger concept with an equally simple handling token: an email address that’s also an account handle for a big service that your device gives you access to. Similarly, the dereferencing unit for something you want is simply its name, not its URL.

That feeling of discomfort that the Big Munge brings on for me is the feeling of losing independence to big company silos, or at least, the clarity of knowing who gets what from you. The Big Munge is creative, fun, and a technological marvel. It all works together pretty seamlessly, and people I know made that happen. That feeling is amazing. But that convenience comes with trust, since we’re increasingly not going to verify the small pieces ourselves as we message each other, listen to music, and exchange money. Instead, we’ll leave all that to search engines, apps that we love, and devices that make our lives better. There’ll be some winners and losers, but I think that’s how it is. What could possibly go wrong?

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