M-Theory: Technology and the steady commoditization of people Melanie Baker October 12, 2017 Columns, Featured, M-Theory Have you ever noticed that in movies set in the future, it’s invariably a world of zero privacy? The government knows everything about you. In public you’re stalked by hyper-personalized advertising. Your devices and home automation are basically your brain cloned and stuffed into brushed metal casing. With the exception of works set in post-apocalyptic dystopias, perhaps. No power grid, no internet, and “advertising” is half-buried, rusty signs denoting irony or nostalgia. So that’s our choice? Either your entire existence becomes a database entry to be mined and sold at will … or we blow civilization to smithereens and no one knows your favourite kind of nail polish or political leanings unless you discuss it. Has it really never occurred to anyone that we could make different choices? Or do we realize that the powers that be just wouldn’t care if we tried? But then, we’re already being groomed for the first future I mentioned. One little thing at a time commoditizes us. For example, from time to time I still see people express surprise when the Google Doodle is a personalized image and message to them on their birthdays. Seriously? That’s the least of what they know about you. Or when several folks I know have reported getting ads in their social feeds for Product or Service X not after searching for, reading, or viewing something relevant online, but after having had an in-person conversation with a friend about Product or Service X while their phone was nearby. Or how our web searches and email have been monitored and mined for years. Anyone else believe this? Didn’t think so … One of my co-workers sent around this article from Nautilus the other day, and I really like the angle it takes regarding how we treat media and how it treats us. The attention economy isn’t just about trying to get us to buy more stuff. It’s warping how (and if) we make decisions, far beyond nail polish or politics. Get as much of our time and attention as possible, sure, but also get deeper into our heads. Get us thinking in certain ways and obsessing about certain things, and later acting in certain ways. Like an earworm without music. We have studies that show that phone usage encourages addictive behaviours, and their constant distractions lower our IQs. So, just delete those apps, right? Yeah, why is it that we don’t …? These and other tactics make us more suggestive and more malleable, less concerned about faceless entities knowing everything about us, and less likely to think critically. We begin to question our own knowledge and opinions when they’re at odds with media input. Gaslighting: it’s not just for workplace harassment and abusive partners anymore! It’s not actually that far off how cults, human traffickers, and interrogators break down victims, either. To get into our heads most effectively, these entities have to know what will interest, anger, or intrigue us. Judith Duportail, a French journalist living in Berlin, recently wrote a piece that appeared in The Guardian about taking advantage of a little-known EU law to request the data that Tinder’s held about her. She got back 800 pages. Not just on who she was attracted to and communications sent to potential dates, but information connected to her other social platforms and the people, places, and things she enjoyed and interacted with there. Now, sure, social platforms have privacy settings and whatnot, but just because you can hide a risque cartoon from your grandma doesn’t mean the platform itself isn’t mining you like the Seven Dwarves mine diamonds. (If you think that agreeing to provide “anonymous” data isn’t so bad, reconsider …) I found the phrase “freedom of attention” in the Nautilus article fascinating. Civil rights are about what we can do (or can’t be prevented from doing), and what can or can’t be done to us. But it’s not just about voting or getting married. Giant corporations (or governments) with the world’s finest minds can spend billions on their goals of owning my attention, decision-making, and intimate details of my life. But I don’t have to play along. (Or do I? Several episodes of Black Mirror would have you wondering.) Far beyond “just don’t use social media” type victim blaming, why should we have to accept that phones have to be designed to addict us? Why should companies have carte blanche to make us their product? And let’s face it, how many people actually really understand these systems and manipulations being used on them? As one article put it, “you can’t feel data.” Unless something super invasive or annoying or creepy happens as a result of our lives being mined, we rarely even notice. We’re more likely to abandon an account registration because of bad UI than because of concerns about privacy policies and data usage. We’re more likely to be worried about doxxing or revenge porn or hacked accounts than the services we sign up for whose EULAs we never read. Because those are the “sexy” scary news stories. But events like those are like shark attacks or lightning strikes: attention grabbing but rare in reality. The odds of your personal information being used or sold, possibly unethically or even illegally — no odds there; it’s already happening. Frankly, most of us are just fine with giving up our data and privacy in good part because we don’t really get it and because it’s convenient. We just want things to work. We want simplicity and seamlessness. And we can have it, for a price. But we don’t do the math to determine that the price is way higher than what we’re getting for it. This New York Times video about the potential future of the internet and overview of how things work in China made my skin crawl. Basically, WeChat is your one stop shop for any and everything under the sun. Super convenient, sure. Seamless commerce and services, sure. And as a result, they own you. (Neither of you have left the app…) The cost/effort required to live your life outside the app becomes so high/difficult as to not be worth it. All your friends, family, finances, and most used services are there. You have little choice but to be there as well unless you want to exist in isolation. Every time you access the app, the app accesses you. And we get just a little closer to that movie future I mentioned. Kinda makes me think I used “dystopia” to describe the wrong scenario … M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.