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Surveillance and Servitude

A response to Kevin Kelly’s “Why You Should Embrace Surveillance, Not Fight It” in Wired

In “Why You Should Embrace Surveillance, Not Fight It” Kevin Kelly offers some possibilities for a positive view of ubiquitous surveillance. The solution to our concerns about privacy, according to Kelly, is more, rather than less surveillance. By embracing “coveillance,” collective monitoring of one another, we can recapture some of the influence and transparency currently lost to surveillance, top-down monitoring of citizens by an authority.
While Kelly is right that coveillance gives us transparency, he may be wrong about freedom. Let’s begin with the idea that Big Data firms will pay coveillers for self-monitoring and reporting. The idea that we could make our data more valuable by invoking a sense of entitlement and demanding direct compensation misunderstands the “big” in “Big Data.” The personal data of one citizen is really not all that valuable to data analysis. You can’t create general projections about the behavior of people without the collected data of many individuals. When Big Data gets big enough, very personal information does not matter at all. That’s why Google can happily anonymize the information it collects about you. It doesn’t need the details that distinguish you from someone very much like you. It just needs enough information to draw some conclusions about general trends such as buying habits.
If we do begin to press an entitlement to our personal data and demand payment in exchange for consistent and active self-monitoring, how much will they pay and for how much monitoring? Clearly, Big Data is profitable with what it can get for free right now, so we have to imagine that contracted monitors will get paid a little bit for a lot of inconvenience. After all, there’s little incentive for Google, Microsoft, or Facebook to pay you for what you already give them in exchange for some mighty convenient services.
In asking for some compensation beyond free email, news, and cloud storage, we may find ourselves in binding contracts inspired by our favorite mobile service providers. Free email? Sure, for two years you get a 500gb searchable inbox as long as the provider gets to track every email-related activity and log all contacts to form a social profile. Did I mention you’ll have to click a pop-up or sign in again if you leave your browser open but inactive for more than 10 minutes? Well, if you don’t like the terms, you can pay our opt-out fee. Indentured data servitude doesn’t promise the consumer more freedom.
Likewise, the idyllic image of life in tribal societies where everyone knows everyone else’s business obscures the extreme constraints of a forced public life. Let’s not forget that the same highly open societies that humankind lived in for hundreds of years were societies of little freedom. Tyrannical chiefs or high priests could ostracize or punish anyone for any difference from the normal. It’s no coincidence that those same authorities also decided what is and is not normal.

    We worry about losing privacy for a good reason: the loss of privacy is the loss of freedom. If we cannot choose what we present about ourselves and how we present it, we lose the freedom to decide who we are and who we trust. We lose the freedom to be different, to be unique, and to offer that uniqueness as a token of trust and companionship. In 1921, Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin completed We a dystopia exploration of total transparency. In We, the citizens live in a city of clear glass. Everyone can see everyone else, and everyone is accountable to same standards and rules. Zamyatin’s characters live out fully transparent lives in servitude to their city, unable to change their society or themselves for fear of deviation and punishment. Transparency is their master, and none of them are free.


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