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Hey tech optimists, we need a little activism for the unmonitored self

Digital era

Historians will look back at the past 20 years as a unique period, a time when there was great opportunity to see deep into the collective soul of entire societies because people’s online behaviour was largely naked of any fears of being judged or monitored.

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Novelist Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez wrote: “All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” We once had insight into that secret world.

People now go “dark” — ditching their natures, becoming self-monitored, self-critical, and second guessing themselves and everything around them, in the wake of the NSA disclosures and the enormous amount of corporate spying on individuals, so that they will buy more products. We lose far more than we gain.

The individual and their search box was almost as private and sacrosanct as the communion box — and exhibited the same honesty. You can see this in the search data that AOL released in 2006 as part of a research project. It anonymised 658 000 users, but for the first time we got to see a narrative from each user that pointed to great sorrow and drama within ordinary peoples’ lives that could not be revealed in any other way.

Here is a list of searches by user “005315”:

  • Letters and responses written by women to emotionally abusive partners
  • Men that use emotional and physical abandonment to control their partner
  • Warning signs of a man’s infidelity or sexual addiction
  • The sociopathic relationship
  • Southern California newspaper stories about woman murdered by boyfriend in Pomona, December 2005
  • Names of females murdered or found dead in Pomona, California in 2005
  • Characteristics of a sociopath in a relationship
  • A person that shows lack of empathy
  • Help in writing a letter to a abusive narcissistic ex-boyfriend
  • How to hurt the narcissistic man
  • Retaliating against the narcissistic man

AOL search user “4331025” seemed to be going through a divorce:

  • Cheer up plaques
  • Mass custody definitions
  • Kids health
  • Visitation schedule
  • Kids gym places in Worcester
  • Counter surveillance products
  • Sample visitation schedules
  • How are fat girlfriends
  • Revenge for a cheating spouse
  • Civil war a father’s guide to wining custody
  • First date do’s and don’ts
  • How to satisfy a woman
  • Penis enlargement
  • How to get revenge on exwife
  • How to do a background check with a license number

There’s lots more, some of it can be very disturbing.

Selfies and self-centered life…

For a few years, the search box became a new form of confessional and the answers offered some salvation. Now, that’s gone because the innocence has gone. However, there’s a ton of archives for future anthropologists to sift — if they become available from Google, et al.

What’s worse than self-censoring your entire life is the boost internet technologies have given to the incumbent powers. The early utopian ideals of blogging, citizen journalists, and transparency have not been realized. Those “transformative” technologies have in fact helped the ruling powers continue to survive amid greatly magnified levers of control and abilities to impose their ideas onto larger masses of people. The social media promises of challenging the status quo failed to be realised and instead, social media became the social distribution of mass media (SODOMM).

Security expert Bruce Schneier, recently wrote in The Atlantic:

There is more government surveillance than ever before. There is more government censorship than ever before. There is more government propaganda, and an increasing number of governments are controlling what their users can and cannot do on the internet. Totalitarian governments are embracing a growing “cyber sovereignty” movement to further consolidate their power. And the cyberwar arms race is on, pumping an enormous amount of money into cyber-weapons and consolidated cyber-defences, further increasing government power…

The interests of corporate and government powers are aligning. Both corporations and governments benefit from ubiquitous surveillance, and the NSA is using Google, Facebook, Verizon, and others to get access to data it couldn’t otherwise.

Schneier believes that by being nimble, it is possible to use technology to out-fox the ruling powers. However, it doesn’t take long for governments, and corporations to catch up. And as the cloaking technologies become more complex to use, fewer use them, and users can then become very exposed by using them even if their content isn’t.

This is why cloaking technologies should be ubiquitous and built-into the fabric of online infrastructure because they are essential to a modern democracy. Their absence should be considered anti-democratic and a form of human rights violation because peoples’ access to free speech and freedom to organize cannot be guaranteed.

Nearly eight years ago I wrote:

Will we have Big Brother? Yes, because we can. Because once we digitize something, we can process it, and we can store it — very easily. We can monitor the inventory in Coke machines, and we will monitor everything else soon too.

And if we can track people, we will, because we can. If reasonable technologies exist to prevent crime, terrorism, or any other illegal acts, then we would be negligent in not employing those technologies. That will be the logic of the lawyers and legislators.

Welcome to the future transparency of your present moments.

When Big Data can predict who will buy shoes it can also be applied to predict crimes and criminals. Predictive analytics might sound benign when applied to business but in the hands of government or police states it becomes truly frightening.

When Big Data can predict who will buy refrigerators it can also be applied to predict crimes and criminals. Predictive analytics might sound benign when applied to commerce but in the hands of government or police states it becomes truly frightening.

We could easily paint ourselves into a corner, as in North Korea, or Nazi Germany and become trapped inside hideous societies ruled by inhuman ideologies because of our advanced technologies of control.

This is why tech-optimists must also become techno-activists to ensure that we get the right future — there are many to choose from but only a few that are worth fighting for.


This article by Tom Foremski originally appeared on Silicon Valley Watcher, a Burn Media publishing partner.

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