Did you -- yes, you, who’d rather surrender a few fingers than your iPhone -- ever pause to wonder at how readily human beings took to our latest technological marvels? The 2010 census found computers in 3 out of 4 American households.
Why have we almost uncritically taken to the Internet? We even capitalize it, as we do the word “God,” and more consistently than we capitalize the word “nature,” on which our lives really do depend. The idea of regulating the Internet, as just about everything else in our lives is regulated, turned out monster online rallies against proposed laws such as SOPA and PIPA that most protesters probably had not even read. Social media lovers eagerly post online information they might be otherwise loath to discuss under subpoena.
Try, as a template, that “Twilight Zone” episode “To Serve Man.” Aliens arrive bringing, gratis, the blessings of peace and plenty through technology, and humankind doesn’t look for the hook in the free lunch -- until it realizes humanity is the free lunch for these cannibal creatures from outer space.
In my recent “Patt Morrison Asks” column, Evgeny Morozov -- the tech world’s Diogenes or its Cassandra or its crank, depending on what you think of him -- takes on “solutionism,” which is the medium-is-the-message belief that the Internet can save us in part because it is the Internet. In his new book, “To Save Everything, Click Here,” he asks us to ask ourselves why this is the case, why we don’t bother to think through the consequences and the blowback that might attach themselves to the Internet allure of “free” and “convenient.”
The volunteering of information online, he argues, could make victims of those who don’t volunteer it. Consider new cars that you can fit out with a chip that monitors your driving habits and relays that to your insurance company. You can get a discount on your policy for doing so, but eventually it could penalize people who don’t want to invade their own privacy that way, and wind up paying higher rates because it’s assumed they’re misbehaving drivers who are hiding their wicked ways.
The same is true, Morozov argues, of government databases about us.
“It might be,” Morozov told me, “that you don’t have something to hide, but if you meet five or 10 or 15 different benchmarks on some NSA spreadsheet, you suddenly become suspicious. You may not have committed anything [wrong] in the past, but based on [these] data points, someone at NSA may predict the odds are that you will commit something major in the next 12 months.
“NSA and corporations as well are sitting on so much data about so many people that they can predict our future better than we can because they have the [huge] database. They can look at me in a way I can never look at myself.”
And once you accept that logic, he says, “you can no longer accept the argument that you have nothing to hide.”
People end up profiling themselves by going online to personalize everything, from apps about health and exercise to driving habits and tastes in music.
“Personalization can be very useful in some contexts but very harmful in others. Searching for pizza online, it’s probably OK to keep showing the same pizza shop as your No. 1 choice. I don’t see any big political consequences out of that.”
But take, for example, the personalization of maps, tailoring them to individual searches. “What I don’t like is that makes certain things disappear, giving me a map of the city that is different from the map you get. And so we might end up having different ideas of what actually exists in the city. Building personalization into maps, in the name of efficiency, might prevent us, for example, from having a conversation about public space. We need to have a careful conversation about what we are about to lose.”
Meaning that long before we got into a swivet over a Trojan virus, we should have thought twice about welcoming that techno-Trojan horse so readily into our homes and our pockets.
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