Technology and Society
February 28, 2019
How quaint the ways of Paradox!
At common sense she gaily mocks!
A most ingenious paradox.
~The Pirates of Penzance
Paradox 1. Personalization
The systems we engage with online love to provide “personalization” by learning who we are, our interests, our habits, our associations so as to “improve the customer experience.” It would be inefficient to make our own choices among a generic list of movies or news articles or search results about that rash on our elbow. Those results should be hand-picked by an invisible concierge who knows what we have watched, read, and been worried about in the past. Our machines of loving grace know us well. We’re practically engaged.
But human beings? It’s so much work interacting with them, even for trivial tasks. Why be forced to chat with a cashier when you can scan your groceries yourself? The cashier might notice you’re buying unhealthy snacks. That could be an embarrassing intrusion on your privacy. Why visit a bookstore where the owner might want to talk about what you like to read as you browse the shelves? How intrusive! Yet we don’t seem to mind that Amazon tracks every move we make as we browse their site. We just don’t see it happening.
We’re being groomed to avoid people (who require costly wages) while accepting the all-seeing eye watching us online. The “improved customer experience,” of course, has everything to do with making money – either by being more effective at selling you a consumer good, getting you to click on an ad, or adding more personally identified information to the vast data pool that can become training data for behavior modification. In other words, we’re being personalized.
Paradox 2. Freedom of Speech
Platforms that do not create speech but make a handy profit from distributing it have claimed the high ground of the First Amendment. Speech should only be regulated in the rarest of instances. The cure for hate speech is more speech. Tech platforms, of course, are not governed by the first amendment, which only relates to what the state can or cannot do, but tech culture has embraced free speech as a principle. John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace was modeled on the US Declaration of Independence, and it states “anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
Of course, cyberspace has never been independent. Servers and headquarters have real-world addresses and tech companies must comply with local law. In addition, the profitable platforms we use to express ourselves, search, and share require us to agree to terms of service, legally enforceable restrictions that give the platforms governance over speech. How those rules are enforced can be capricious and self-serving. A private citizen might be suspended from Twitter for speech that doesn’t knock the Tweeter-in-Chief offline. Moreover, these platforms profit from “sticky” content. Their algorithmic regulation of speech can promote or suppress speech for business reasons. Best of all, in the US they have a get-out-of-jail-free card. Section 203 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (the one that put John Perry Barlow in such a revolutionary frame of mind) immunizes platforms from responsibility for the speech they make public. They can have free speech, regulate it at will, and escape any responsibility. What a sweet deal! Of course, in other countries with different laws these platforms censor and suppress speech while waving a free-speech banner at their US headquarters.
Speech online, it turns out is not free as in speech; it’s free as in beer, a commodity with a tap on it that can be turned on or off.
Paradox 3. Security
Once upon a time Americans were deeply suspicious of the capabilities of computers to gather and process information. That changed after 9/11. Suddenly sharing all of our data was vital for our safety, or so we were led to believe. Now, thanks to our enthusiasm for sharing everything, even our DNA, we’re incredibly unsafe. This is partly thanks to our intelligence agencies’ preference for offense (such as hoarding vulnerabilities in software to use for espionage purposes) over defense (such as notifying software companies of vulnerabilities, thus making it harder for foreign powers to spy on us). Surveillance capitalism, which evades the very few constitutional provisions that protect our privacy from the government, depends on lots of personal data being collected. The data we generate incidentally online is valuable both to corporations and the state, which often work hand in hand. If the state is prohibited from, say, collecting DNA from people who aren’t suspected of a crime, they can just get it from a third party. The police might get in trouble if they tracked information about every vehicle traveling through their jurisdiction, but they don’t have to because they can buy it off the shelf from a company that collects that information across the country.
The paradox here is that the security excuse for gathering data actually increases our risk. Most of our data is the equivalent of toxic waste. It piles up and can leach into unexpected places. Collecting data means it will be exploited – by companies, by the state, by anyone with the technical chops. We’re going to regret the day we ever thought “collect it all” was a good way to keep us safe.
And when any company says “we take your privacy seriously,” beware.