As the information age and big data colonize everything in life – expanding now into reality itself – we face an erosion not only of privacy but of choice. Even as we think we have greater choice and power, really important choices and power are being subtly stolen from us by folks who don’t want us to know or do anything about it. We need to take back our lives while we still can.
“Dark Google”, privacy and power
Sir Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes told us that “Knowledge is power.” We need to integrate their insight with Sir John Acton’s observation that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In this runaway Information Age we need to realize that one-way concentrations of knowledge power are dangerous when they are not answerable, not responsive to oversight and feedback. The article below, “Dark Google”, makes this point powerfully regarding Google and the NSA. The author, Harvard’s Shoshana Zuboff, is eminently qualified to issue this warning.
Google, the NSA, and correlated networks and institutions have accumulated a lot of unanswerable information power, with more to come. This is why privacy is becoming an issue, not only for each of us or because “we have something to hide”, but for all of us because it powerfully impacts the ability of our societies to be democratic and our collective ability to shape our shared lives and our future.
Privacy is about control over knowledge about ourselves and our lives. The “right to privacy” is acknowledged – if not always honored – in democratic countries everywhere. It gives us power over our lives and restrains the power of others – especially governments, large businesses, and our enemies – to negatively impact us. Zuboff observes that “Exercising our right to privacy leads to choice. We can choose to keep something secret or to share it, but we only have that choice when we first have privacy. Privacy rights confer decision rights. Privacy lets us decide where we want to be on the spectrum between secrecy and transparency in each situation. Secrecy is the effect; privacy is the cause.”
Modern surveillance and data-mining systems concentrate knowledge-power about us and our lives in the hands of corporations and government agencies who can then use it to shape our minds, feelings, and lives in ways over which we have precious little say. They deny us power to withhold knowledge about ourselves and our lives at the same time they deny us power to understand how they track us and to shape what they do with what they learn. They are progressively stealing and centralizing the right to privacy – and the power it gives – in their own hands.
In short, they use their right to privacy and secrecy to deny us that same right, and this is the source of their increasingly absolute power. The irony is that they also use that power to give us more of what we think we want and need, individually and collectively, faster and more conveniently. The downside of this obvious seduction is hidden both by their secrecy and PR and by our oblivious joy in and growing dependence on the access to services and goods that they provide.
The coming regime shaped by the Google carrot and the NSA stick – an era in which we think we’re experiencing increasing fluidity of personal power while being subtly tracked and manipulated at every turn – is a whole new ball game, something we’ve never experienced before.
Except it’s not a game – not really – even if we think it is. And there’s no ball. Or maybe we’re the ball. Or maybe the whole world is the ball…
Omniscience. Omnipotence. And the victor writes the history…
“Dark Google” attempts to awaken us to technosocial dynamics that are – like the physical dynamics of climate change – evolving rapidly beyond our capacity to track and influence. The window for positive intervention is closing. It’s time to step out of our old business-as-usual long enough to co-create a new business-as-usual that more dependably serves our lives, our world, and our future.
PS: On a related personal note, there’s this about our addiction to the screen…
And for more insight on the trip that is taking us into this trap, see The Century of the Self…