Saturday, February 11, 2012

On Passwords

In order to write this blog post, I needed to enter in a password. I've had the same password for the six years I've been on blogger. It's hard to recall specifically, but it may be the original password I first started using back when being a participating member of society required the formation of passwords. While the emergence of the World Wide Web has obviously changed much about our lives, one aspect that I'm not sure I've ever seen discussed is the rise of the password. Twenty years ago, unless you were in the military or worked in some security field, or perhaps belonged to a secret lodge, you didn't need to commit any passwords to memory. Now, most of us walk around with a head full of so many passwords that we struggle to keep them straight.

Despite growing up in the pre-password era, I went through childhood with a favorite password. Actually, it's more of a passphrase than a password, which precluded me from using it as an entry into digital realms. And really, I never got much of an opportunity to use it in any realm, given that 10-year-olds usually don't get to exercise the use of passwords (I did once use it to exclude the lone girl at a family gathering from participating in a boys' activity, before a sympathetic cousin provided her with the not-so-secret password).

And now, I choose to make the phrase public: "Frogs in Winter." If that seems to be too random for a pre-adolescent to be able to generate, that's because it is. I stole it from an episode of G.I. Joe. In the subsequent years, the only occasion I had to exercise a verbal password was at a Milwaukee spy-themed restaurant ("I'm looking for a safe house"). Still, what I have learned from these limited experiences is that saying passwords is a lot more fun than typing them.

It's somewhat ironic that technology has facilitated the return to relevance of the ancient practice of password protection, since an overall effect of technology has been the obliteration of the arcane. From how to do magic tricks to the closely-held teachings of Scientology to the troves of WikiLeaks, the trend has been away from cabalistic knowledge. Of course, the contemporary password is not something that is shared between people, it is shared between a person and processing unit.

I imagine someday we will not have to worry about passwords anymore. Just when malicious hackers will master the art of password extraction, developers will come forward with cheap voice-recognition and/or fingerprint recognition devices that will once again thrust the password into obsolescence. But perhaps at that point, some combination of cravings for nostalgia and human interaction may lead to a sphere where social transactions can only occur after someone utters a word of phrase of esoteric significance. And if I am ever in a position where I demand a password, entrance will be admitted to those who know frogs in winter.


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