I was eagerly awaiting the delivery of the little foldable wireless keyboard I’m using to write this now. My phone pinged me and told my my item was seven stops away.
Curious, and with nothing pressing on my time, I spent the next half hour watching a blue dot move around a map of my neighborhood. Updated every 30 seconds, all the movements of the delivery van were available to me.
I found it pretty neat, but a bit troubling too.
Perhaps that is because I’ve been listening to an audio version of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” by Shoshana Zuboff. It is a detailed account of how corporations have staked out territory and power in the digital world most of us barely understand.
The book is subtitled “The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.” Zuboff wastes no time in denouncing the rise of these entities and the correlated diminishment of our individual privacy.
It is a challenging and complex book, and although I wish she had withheld her rhetorical assault until after she finished describing recent events, I think it is an importantly disturbing book.
In a nutshell, she says that Google, Facebook and Amazon have scooped up all sorts of information we generate — our web searches, purchases, things we read and write. We might have thought these were somehow ours, but they have become a commodity that can be sold.
Our profiles turn out to be highly predictive and people will pay to get them. Not only are we bombarded with advertisements for products similar to the ones we have bought, we are also nudged to behave in ways that are profitable for others, not necessarily for us.
Most of us don’t seem to mind too much. After all, we might actually find something we want to buy. But there’s more to it.
With sensors in new automobiles sending out data about car performance and driving habits, insurance companies are already offering lower rates to drivers who avoid fast starts, speeding, swerves and other reckless maneuvers.
One of my friends already subscribes; another did for a while, but quit the program because he felt that “It made me drive like an old lady.”
We can see how health insurers would love to get information letting them price policies based on individual risk.
China is experimenting with a system of social credit in which citizens get benefits by being orderly and productive. They are denied travel visas and other benefits if their social network consists of too many people posting things critical of the Chinese Communist Party.
It’s a softer totalitarianism. The police don’t come knocking at your door, but algorithms make your life easier or harder depending on your compliance.
Most Americans would be outraged if our government implemented this sort of thing, but they are complacent when their data is compiled and sold by private corporations.
Still, there is good that comes out of this total data field. Individuals have an incredible amount of power and information at our fingertips.
For example, I have booked lodging, seen where hotels are by map and street view, and even decided which pubs and restaurants in Edinburgh I want to visit on my summer vacation.
Remember how not that many years ago you could get into your car and nobody could reach you? Those days are gone, for better and, perhaps, much worse.
Power and wealth will act in their own interest, not necessarily in ours.