Via The Intercept, I came across a fantastic piece in the Frankfurter Allgemeine by Harvard Business Professor Shoshana Zuboff. The dawn of the era of the Internet of Things has prompted me to think a great deal about the broad swathe of impacts the coming turn is going to have. I have always followed (via Twitter and elsewhere) people who were strongly involved in arguments around privacy and technology.
Those arguments made sense to me in an online world whose access to the world we inhabit was circumsribed. As the barriers between the two spheres are removed and we slowly come to inhabit our reality as one which is concurrently digitised, we are going to face incredible challenges.
Having training in philosophy, my concerns centre around our embodied condition and our scope for freedom and action in a world where our objects are no longer passive. What struck me about the piece by Prof. Zuboff was the breadth of issues that are going to be raised by rollout of Internet of Things technology.
We’ve entered virgin territory here. The assault on behavioral data is so sweeping that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests. This is a different kind of challenge now, one that threatens the existential and political canon of the modern liberal order defined by principles of self-determination that have been centuries, even millennia, in the making. I am thinking of matters that include, but are not limited to, the sanctity of the individual and the ideals of social equality; the development of identity, autonomy, and moral reasoning; the integrity of contract, the freedom that accrues to the making and fulfilling of promises; norms and rules of collective agreement; the functions of market democracy; the political integrity of societies; and the future of democratic sovereignty. In the fullness of time, we will look back on the establishment in Europe of the “Right to be Forgotten” and the EU’s more recent invalidation of the Safe Harbor doctrine as early milestones in a gradual reckoning with the true dimensions of this challenge.
These issues are going to challenge us at the level of being, existence. We have conventional assumptions about ourselves. Over Christmas I found myself re-reading One Dimensional Man, (more here), in which Marcuse raises the prospect that we are losing our core principle of subjectivity to one based on “technological rationality” or “efficiency”.
We have evolved as human beings used to confonting and controllable world of objects. The broad development of objects now; connected to servers, always on, recording, monitoring, and nudging, are going to accelerate the divisions Prof. Zuboff outlines.
Philosophically speaking our mode of being is rapidly and unpredictably being upturned. We are increasingly forced to trust large corporates in Silicon Valley or Shenzhen to have the right set of motivations in building these products. It is not a given they are going to act in our best interests.
Zuboff described a discussion with a Chief Data Scientist at an unnamed Silicon Valley company. When pressed on what their goals are with the technology they develop they offered the following; “The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behavior at scale. When people use our app, we can capture their behaviors, identify good and bad behaviors, and develop ways to reward the good and punish the bad. We can test how actionable our cues are for them and how profitable for us”.
There is no doubt that subjecting human development to a principle of efficiency or technological rationality creates a multitude of cracks in our social foundations. We need broad investigation as well as the discussion around privacy.
Privacy will not give us sufficiently broad arguments to address the social issues raised by the Internet of Things. It will be necessary but not sufficient to fully understand and regulate the kinds of things we are going to do putting intelligence and always-on connectivity into the things we use daily.