#90: Be Your Own Password

This week I wrote a piece for Real Life about AirPods and how they might affect our shared experience of public space as they become increasingly ubiquitous. Coincidentally, on the same day that article was published, Apple announced a bunch of new products and features, including “Sign in with Apple,” an alternative to the familiar login options that Google and Facebook offer with the added promise that using Apple’s version won’t result in your personal data being unceremoniously sold to anyone who wants it. I’ve written before about the tech industry’s antipathy toward the idea of “friction” and the seemingly insatiable appetite for increasingly frictionless ways to do things (most of which are already relatively easy); “Sign in with Apple” exists at the perfect intersection of frictionlessness and privacy, a combination that is right in Apple's wheelhouse. In my AirPod piece I reference the so-called AirPod Barrier; Apple's entire universe increasingly feels like an airtight system sealed off by similar barriers, and we all face the increasingly consequential decision of whether we want to be on the inside or the outside of that membrane. Inside is a crystal conservatory where you are coddled and your data is safe; outside there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Interestingly, "Sign in with Apple" also eliminates the need to use your own email address to log in. I’m fascinated by passwords, having lived through their evolution from simplistic text strings like “drewaustin" into unguessable, encrypted, two-factor protected abstractions that machines pass between each other without human involvement. I recently started using a password manager, and as soon as I did, a chaotic mess of email drafts, text files, and handwritten notes containing all my stupid old passwords simply vanished. My life took another slight step toward the elegant minimalism that companies like Apple have largely facilitated. The complexity still exists, of course—my new passwords are more complicated than the old ones, and I’d struggle to memorize even one of them—but now it’s removed from where I have to see it or deal with it. Think about all the similar detritus that has been eliminated from life over the last twenty years by technological streamlining: Keys, wires, scraps of paper, tickets, disks, and CDs have all been absorbed into small aluminum and glass objects. Now, even logging into an account with an email address might go the route of printing out MapQuest directions.

The idea that our iPhones and AirPods have become like bodily appendages has started to seem less metaphorical and more literal as the pursuit of the friction-free ideal binds those devices closer to our physical selves. Consider the three factors of authentication: something you know (a memorized password), something you have (a device or a key) and something you are (fingerprints or other biometric authentication methods). You’ve probably noticed that the first two factors are increasingly mediated by and consolidated within the devices themselves. A growing share of what I "know" is accessed through my phone (including all my passwords, now) and Apple's replacement of all that aforementioned detritus means I also "have" a lot less as well—instead, I mostly just have a phone. What's left, then, is "something I am" along with the increasingly important object that is also increasingly unusable by anyone but me, and therefore more a part of me than ever. No wonder it's so hard to put it down.

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