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TECHNOLOGY AND/OR FREEDOM: The New Challenges to Democracy

TECHNOLOGY AND/OR FREEDOM: The New Challenges to Democracy

By Adam Simpson

SpaceX hopes to put 4,000 satellites into orbit by 2030 to provide internet access to every inch of the earth, including those most desperate inches in places like North Korea. Today, South Korean activists deliver hard drives full of information (and soap operas) via drones flying across the DMZ. Tomorrow, maybe they’ll deliver the receivers necessary to access the SpaceX’s internet service. What happens to such a regime if it cannot block access to social networks and maintain its veil of disinformation and thought control? It seems perfectly reasonable to predict this profound dilemma for even the world’s worst totalitarians, and that advances in technology will lead to more freedom. But the benefits of these advances are only half the story.

Digital Panopticon and the Death of Privacy

As society has become further interconnected, in particular by the internet, we’ve lost some degree of anonymity and privacy—and this is a trend that may well continue. Tech Insider notes that SpaceX’s proposed satellites will have multiple applications if, as is likely, they are equipped with sensors and cameras. For example, they’ll be able to help “meteorologists create a live global weather map...or law enforcement officials track down criminals.” If this global array of satellites is fitted with cameras in such a way that it could track an individual fugitive with precision, it could also track, however inadvertently, law abiding individuals. Add this to the enormous amount of data that we generate and distribute to various service providers—the places we go, the things we purchase, the people with which we communicate, the queries we log into search engines—and the notion of privacy really begins to deteriorate. As we’ve seen with the revelations of NSA surveillance leaked by Edward Snowden, if private companies have this data then it is reasonable to assume that governments as well have this data, or at the very least have access to it. Even more extreme, such agencies as well as hackers have the ability to access cameras and microphones on electronic devices. Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg takes step to prevent this type of access.

What does the sum total of individual freedoms mean without privacy—the right to keep secrets, to act without concerning ourselves with the judgement of other or our own governments in particular? The sheer scale of the data generated by our modern, digital lives may very well resemble something similar to Michel Foucault’s Panopticism, a sort of prison where discipline is not coerced by torment but by surveillance. Foucault builds upon Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison where observers are posted in the center, constantly able to see into the cells of inmates, but inmates are unable to see the observer. Overtime the mere fact of observation becomes the mode of discipline rather than any force meted out upon the body; the prisoners begin to reproduce institutional discipline upon themselves.

   Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Revely.   1791.  SOURCE.

 Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Revely. 1791. SOURCE.

Under ordinary circumstances the vast amount of data needed to construct this digital panopticon would be so vast that it simply wouldn’t function because of limited manpower. Consider that the deliberate mass surveillance undertaken by many governments has failed to stop terrorist attacks because there is simply too much data being collected for human analysts to sort through and make sense of it. But this hurdle will soon be overcome with advances in artificial intelligence. Such advances in machine learning will greatly improve our ability to track, sort, and make sense of data to ultimately determine the signal from the noise. While this digital panopticon may be an unachievable dystopian fantasy today, it may become realized soon.

The Dark Side of Social Media

The Arab Spring was thought to be a series of uprisings with social media as a central driver. That narrative is not without complication, but there’s no doubt that social media is changing the way we we exchange ideas and the form affinity groups with social peers around common causes. On the other hand, it also unites a relative few around less common causes. Transnational Jihadists exploit social media to find new recruits within the Middle East and beyond. It is also used in the West to connect its own brand of reactionary hate groups, like neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. These individuals, in a more analog age, would be isolated, unheard of, and perhaps harmless. What’s good for the goose, it seems, is good for the coyote (coyotes are natural predators of geese; I looked it up).

Beyond hate groups, social media also has a tendency to polarize people and allow them to exchange ideas is isolation from alternative viewpoints. In a certain sense, this is because commentary is becoming more democratic and more decentralized. Anyone, regardless of their education level,their life experiences, or their expertise cannot only participate in online conversations but lead them as well. This is not an elitist critique of “unwashed masses,” but does have positive and negative implications. A recent Pew study found that American liberals and conservatives consistently get their news from different sources and tend to unfriend or unfollow peers that do not share their political views. Even now populism seems to be on the rise in the world’s most advanced nations, exemplified by the rise of nativist Donald Trump in the United States or the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom. The problems of polarization may be obvious, but it’s difficult to imagine what the solutions are. Should social media companies make an effort to pierce echo chambers by injecting opposing political view into individuals’ feeds? Should they more liberally remove and ban images and speech that are viewed as offensive? Should they remove items they believe to be rumors or lies? All of these ‘solutions’ have free speech implications just as worrying as the original problem.

Social media and privacy are only two concerns among many, but they illustrate an important point about technology. For all the democratizing promises of various technologies, they have the capacity to be limited or corrupted by the decisions we make. Federal law requires that medical data be anonymized so as to protect a patient’s identity; perhaps this should be expanded and perhaps not. The artificial intelligences that are developed to mine through our personal data and information may serve as the anonymized firewall that protects us or maybe not. Social media may become increasingly monitored by law enforcement to prevent the rise of hate groups, or governments may invest in education as a strategy of inoculating citizens to hateful ideologies. The point is that that technology is a tool. Whatever positive or negative outcomes we hope to achieve, there are decisions to be made by governments and individuals alike. In the end, technology has no preference for populism or rationality, freedom or tyranny, or otherwise. It is how we engage with it and the excesses and limits humans impose on it that will ultimately shape the future. It’s past time to elevate these conversations and better understand them.

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