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The Dark Side of Tech

Is our civilization putting its citizens on a track from which deviation will be impossible? 

Those who forecast the future tread a fine line between the serious analysis of trends and their own speculative opinion. David Samuels, the author of what Wired classifies as an opinion piece, provides an impressive range of facts to support his view of where the data-hoovering world in which we live may be leading us. The title of the article limpidly sums up his reading of the trends: “Is Big Tech Merging with Big Brother? Kinda Looks Like It.”

As Samuels describes it, “[T]here is both anecdotal and hard evidence to suggest that the once-distant planets of consumer Big Tech and American surveillance agencies are fast merging into a single corporate-bureaucratic life-world, whose potential for tracking, sorting, gas-lighting, manipulating, and censoring citizens may result in a softer version of China’s Big Brother.”

Here is today’s 3D definition: 

Tracking:

Following every movement or step of an object or agent in movement, usually with the stated goal of ensuring safety and regularity of function, but when implemented by authorities, with the unstated goal of forcing the object or agent into rigid conformity

Contextual note

Most people in our advanced civilization, and especially those who read Wired, have bought into the totally convincing argument of convenience that leads us to accept technology as an essential ingredient of our lives. We know that specific technologies allow us to achieve targeted goals with ever increasing efficiency. For example, electronic publication means that sharing with a vast public what one has written — such as this article — can be done almost immediately, a fact that has made it possible for bloggers to express their every insight and emotion to the entire world at will.

Another technology, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), permits the recording, classification, integration, and control of multiple and diverse operations within a business, increasing the visibility and legibility for managers of all essential data related to the activity of an enterprise. Applied to traditional activities — communicating through writing and managing an enterprise — both examples illustrate the convenience of a technology that saves time and broadens perception. It makes it easier to do the things we like to do (leisure) or have to do (work), justifying our persistent enthusiasm.

But there is a dark side. Thanks in particular to recent scandals concerning Facebook, most people have become aware that the convenience they have been offered, free of charge, from the likes of Google and Facebook, or the savings and convenience from Amazon, come at the price of their privacy. What they can’t readily perceive is the transfer of power this implies. They may not feel endangered as individuals, reasoning that they have nothing to hide. But few people realize what it means at a collective level. Their private data becomes a set of statistics that defines them.

Thanks to the drama of Edward Snowden’s dramatic escape and revelations about the National Security Agency back in 2013, Americans may or may not be aware of the scale or even the nature of the US government’s threat to their privacy. Since 9/11, the political class — Democrats sometimes even more forcefully than Republicans — have insisted that government intelligence and surveillance is purely designed to protect them from either Islamic terrorists or devious Russians undermining American democracy, and so should be welcomed without criticism.

Samuels describes a world in which Americans — as consumers driven by the argument of convenience, and as citizens craving security from dark forces threatening from abroad — will embrace a “social rating system” as powerful but possibly more insidious than the one the Chinese have designed to keep their population under strict control. Google and Amazon seek to control people’s behavior because it’s profitable for what Samuels calls “their wildly lucrative businesses.” Governments — in both China and the US, two empires, one emerging and the other declining — seek to control behavior to consolidate their increasingly absolute authority over a docile population.

Historical note

Samuels warns us about the advancing merger that will produce “a single corporate-bureaucratic life-world.” We owe the interesting word “life-world” to the 20th-century German philosopher Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology. Lifeworld (Lebenswelt in German) refers to the complexity of interconnected experience. According to Husserl, “[W]e are concretely in the field of perception … and in the field of consciousness … through our living body, but not only in this way, [also] as full ego-subjects.”

Samuels thus forecasts a dystopian social system in which our perception of the world and our ability to act within it is regimented by the converging logic of corporatocracy — one that treats people as consumers to extract profit from — and bureaucracy that treats them as objects to be controlled. Citing Amazon’s commercial complicity as the supplier of the CIA’s new cloud-based data system, Samuels tells us what all tech-savvy people should be aware of: “The creation of IC GovCloud should send a chill up the spine of anyone who understands how powerful these systems can be and how inherently resistant they are to traditional forms of oversight.”

In recent years, we have seen growing confusion and increasing incoherency in our traditional democracies, illustrated by phenomena as diverse as Brexit, Donald Trump’s election in the US, France’s yellow vests and Italy’s Five Star movement. Traditional parties are imploding, unions have all but disappeared, people are “meaner and angrier.” Will the persistence of elections without meaning be the last and unique vestige of what were once our vaunted democratic rights and freedom?

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.