Posts Tagged ‘surveillance’

What if we needed the seams? Thoughts on the portentous Facebook-NSA nexus…

June 20, 2013

It’s not my nature to be paranoid or apocalyptic, but I’m starting to feel an alarming tug in both directions. Consider for a moment, as this NYT article on the Facebook-NSA nexus does, the current array of public and private incentives to monitor and mine our activities. Then combine those incentives with the ever-improving technology allowing both public and private actors to give freer rein to their darkest impulses whilst spurring each other on to greater heights in pursuit of their converging goals.

On the “public” side—if such a reassuring adjective still applies—the government collects and stores our data the better to police and discipline us. If need be, we’ve been told it can even go “back in time” in search of deviant behaviour. Initially, the policing is carried out by algorithms but gradually—”it is not easy to become sane,” as O’Brien tells Winston Smith at the end of 1984—through a combination of fear and the desire to conform, we learn to do this work ourselves before the algorithms even need to flag us. Data mining, as someone has remarked, is not about finding a needle in a haystack, it’s about incrementally moving the haystack.

On the private side, the incentives are obvious: harvest and process our data in the name of monetizing our activities; in a twist on the just-in-time production model, provide us with products before we’ve even become aware we want them.

In both domains—of citizen or consumer—the functioning is seamless: we become equally scrutable, equally benign. But what if we needed the seams? I’m imagining a world like WALL-E where the only things left roaming the earth aren’t genial robots, but algorithms trolling for data, programming Pandora™ stations with no one left to hear the music…