“It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” — Albert Einstein
I recently opened a new bank account for my new life at my new base, and salary from my new job was paid into it – but I couldn’t access my money. The pin I was given ceased to work after a few hours. Neither could I take out cash using a cheque because I don’t yet have the adequate government-issued ID required to validate it. I was given a new bankcard and a new pin, but these didn’t work either. Two more pins were issued to me, but still no luck. I had my own hard earned money sitting safely in my name, yet I had no access to it for more than a week.
After I wiped away tears of impotent rage, I thought of passwords. And how, in our digital age, we rely on them to access our lives. My mother has probably never had to use a password in her life. She uses keys. Her signature takes care of the rest.
My office uses a fingerprint scan to enter it. My phone does too. Just about everything else I use daily involves a password of some sort. The wrong password – or pin – and we’re shut out, tears of impotent rage be damned.
Most people’s passwords are password. Or 123456. Or their birthdate. The first password I set up consisted of the name of a place and my then age. I still remember it because I used it across the slowly increasing number of situations that required one, long after I left the city and the age behind me. But it was easier to recall that one password so I kept using it – for more than 10 years.
It was only some years ago that I was forced to change it as I was working at Disney at the time and our office laptops were programmed to require a password update every three months for security reasons. And it had to have a combination of small and capital letters, numbers, and special characters. As in D@mnYouD!sn3y.
It was around then that the news started to report on seemingly airtight corporations’ websites being hacked, with millions of people’s credit card details stolen. Passwords suddenly became A Very Big Deal.
Given how much I rely on a cash-free routine – Uber for taxis, Zomato for ordering meals (and I despise cooking so I use it twice a day, don’t judge me), Amazon for stuff I can’t be bothered to go traipsing to the shops for – I probably rely on a secure digital access to my funds more than most people. I knew I had to take it seriously and start using different passwords across different sites.
This shouldn’t be a problem as until about 15 years ago, we all remembered a lot of people’s phone numbers. (My mother, bless her, still does.) We also used to do arithmetic in our heads and we’d plan out journeys using maps. Now with our ready dependence on our smartphones, we don’t do these any more. In the process, we’ve become lazier and stupider.
I sighed and grumbled but finally changed my ways. Grappling with a bunch of varying, complex passwords did, though, become a point of stress. I understood why people chose Password123$ for everything and quietly went on with their lives.
What’s your secret?
Then I read a wonderful article on passwords in the New York Times. In its charmingly detailed coverage on the topic, the author highlighted something that had never occurred to me before: using passwords as reminders or goals, such as Quit@smoking4ever or Save4trip@thailand. Genius!
So I finally tried it myself recently, changing my password to a bid to live in a particular apartment. I recalled the password readily – even in its innovative spelling form and its variations for different sites – so that was useful.
But more importantly, the password was something I had to use several times a day. There is software available, one which comes pre-installed on my computer, that offer to remember all your passwords for you but I refuse to use this. Partly because I fret it will crash and with it will go all my passwords and therefore access to my whole life; and also because I don’t want my brain to atrophy from lack of use. So I typed it out each time, and by doing so, it became a sort of mantra.
I’m not a fan of affirmations, it’s all too Stuart Smalley (sorry, obscure early ’90s SNL reference). I don’t believe that by repeating something often enough, it will come true. If only! But there was something about the frequent act of reminding myself of a goal, especially at unexpected moments. I, for one, can become so consumed with the minutiae of daily life that it’s easy to postpone the important stuff For Later. But now, knee-deep in and distracted by chores, I couldn’t just go online and buy that airline ticket or order groceries without punching in my password. And every time I would get a timely reminder of what was actually significant.
A password went from something that made me frown to something that made me smile, from a tedious task to a delightful one. It made me sit up straight, and feel determined and all-conquering. By its nature, a password is a secret not shared; this was just for me. Instead of thinking of a password as a key, I began to think of it as a passport – to the dreams that lie ahead.
And, as I wrote in the last post, I did move into the apartment. Which worked out perfectly, as it was time to change passwords again.
“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Read the wonderful piece that inspired me: The Secret Life of Passwords by Ian Urbina, first published in the New York Times magazine, first published 19 November 2014.
“I think I can make it now the pain is gone. All of the bad feelings have disappeared. Here is the rainbow I’ve been praying for. It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshine-y day.” Listen to Johnny Nash sing I Can See Clearly Now.
There’s no shortage of pop culture offerings on hackers, but none perhaps as successful or compelling as Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist in the wildly successful The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Read the Millenium trilogy by Stieg Larsson, which were subsequently turned into excellent Swedish and American film adaptations.