Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Participation or Privacy?

This is the nineteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The central dilemma facing the average citizen hasn’t yet been discussed: How to participate in society without accelerating this dystopian future of surveillance capitalism.

Micah gets right to the point: “I’m actually very happy about the fact that I’m never lost any more because I have a phone with GPS,” he says. “This is my first time in Austria,” he adds, “but I’m able to see where I’m staying and find directions to walk there.” But this same technology means that, everywhere he goes, his location is being tracked, not just by Google, but also by T-Mobile and all the other ways data can leak out of his phone. “Still, it’s an amazing technology,” Micah concedes. This kind of trade-off between the enabling and the terrifying aspects of technology is widespread in the tools we have today.

“Every time we use the web,” Micah explains, “there are tonnes of services that track what we’re doing and tonnes of services that make the web more rich.” YouTube videos embedded in blogs, social media or other websites are a great convenience, but mean that Google can track, not only what videos you’re watching, but where you’re watching them. “Everything that we do leaves data trails,” Micah says, “and these data trails end up in databases of a wide variety of companies and many of them we have no idea they even exist.” Say what? “Like, you go to a website and there are dozens of advertising networks tracking you,” he adds, “and you don’t even realise this.” Well, there’s a comforting thought…

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Since the Snowden revelations last year, we now know that all of this data is also accessible to governments and spy agencies, particularly skewed to favour US surveillance operations. A huge percentage of websites use Google Analytics, a great convenience for website owners managing and analysing their traffic flows. “This means that, as you go from website to website, each of these totally separate websites are all sending their information to the same Google database,” Micah explains.

These databases are stored on servers in the US and, because your data has now landed on their soil, the US government can demand to have a look too. In total secret. “There used to be a small minority of paranoid people and everyone would think they were crazy,” Micah says, “and now it turns out they were completely right.”

However, Micah is hopeful in some ways. “People are starting to wake up and finally websites are starting to use encryption,” he says. “Things are starting to go in a better direction, but there are a lot of things that are almost impossible: How can I carry a phone that has a map and GPS without being tracked by the cell networks?”

There are ways to protect yourself from certain aspects of surveillance, but, as Daniel Erlacher says, “If you really want to defend yourself, your browsing experience is not just click and go.” You can install software that blocks JavaScript or anonymises your browsing, but your web experience will be much less rich, pages will load more slowly and, in some cases, not work at all. You are left with a choice between protection and participation.

Shoshana calls this an “illegitimate choice”. For her, this is reminiscent of the illegitimate choice that women in the 1980s were forced to make between having a family or a career. Shoshana and her generation of women had to resist and overturn that illegitimacy; our generation has to resist and overturn the illegitimacies of today. We each must take Shoshana’s vow of resistance: “I will change whatever I have to change around me to not be faced with that choice.”

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The internet is as essential for effective living in the twenty-first century as balancing family and career has become for women since the 1980s. “A few months ago, Facebook had a server crash and people around the United States couldn’t get onto Facebook,” Shoshana tells us. “People were actually calling 911.” We laugh, but the point is made: to millions, these services are critical to participation in society today. “Can you imagine living without Google search, or any kind of search?” she asks. “I certainly can’t.”

This is what makes surveillance capitalism “a Faustian pact” according to Shoshana. If we want to use these services to participate in society, then we are forced to give up certain things, such as our privacy. You could argue that this is not unlike the social contract we all implicitly sign up to when we give up the daily freedom of our children in exchange for eleven long years of education.

The problem with surveillance capitalism is that we have not agreed to give up these rights through the democratic process. There is no social contract; there are only corporate terms and conditions. Privacy is taken away from us unilaterally and without discussion or debate. “It’s a completely unregulated way to do things,” Daniel says. “It’s like driving on the road without any signs or any rules.”

There is, however, some doubt over the potential of our democratic process to face down the biggest technology companies. Daniel Erlacher reels off a list of the ready cash held by the big technology corporations. Apple have one hundred and ten billion dollars on hand, Microsoft fifty-one billion, Google fifty billion – and this was in 2012. That is more cash than most nation states.

Daniel cites Julian Assange’s book When Google Met WikiLeaks: “When we talk about Google,” he says, “we talk about US policy-making.” The implication is that the US government are perfectly happy to have Google in charge, as long as the US government can influence Google. The will of the people, meanwhile, doesn’t come into it at all.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

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