Once upon a time you opened your first email account and picked out a password. You probably don't know what it was now but let's assume you weren't the type of person to pick out "password" or "123456." So, maybe it was the name of a dog or a kid or two dog and kid names mushed together. Easy to remember, right?
Today, you probably have passwords tied to multiple email accounts, a few social media platforms, a few credit cards and banks, and an unclassifiable hodgepodge of other stuff from Dropbox to Airbnb.
Every so often, as happened last week, an alert goes out because there's a virus or a hack. Change all your passwords you are told. And, they all have to be different and alphanumeric.
But, shouldn't language reflect who we are as a people. We should take it seriously, even in our choice of passwords. The increasingly incoherent "words" that pass for passwords no longer resemble the familiar words we use to express our humanity.
And, words matter. They give meaning to our lives and offer insight into the world around us. Yet, we protect our most personal information with passwords devoid of meaning. Where passwords once helped us gain entry into a privileged place, the dehumanizing quality of a string of letters, symbols and numbers reduces us as tidily as the hacker who steals our identity.
Read this story to see how high passwords can help us soar. Mauricio would have joined us today if he wasn't busy flying around the globe.
That said, the need for complex passwords may be our best option-- for now. Biometrics, like fingerprint and voice recognition and iris scans, recognize unique traits in each individual, eliminating the need to remember the multiple passwords that bog us down. But, while great in theory, the technology isn't quite ready for prime time. Will Oremus sums it up when he says, "Passwords, you see, are the worst possible security system--except for all the others."
Today, we talk about the art and science of passwords and look at this increasingly complex mental task.
- Randy Malamud is Chair of the Department of English at Georgia State University. He’s the author of 6 books, including “The Language of Modernism” and “Reading Zoos.” He recently wrote an essay on passwords for Salon.com, "The Lost Art of Passwords: What We Lost When Hackers Conquered the Internet."
- Will Oremus is Slate.com's senior technology writer