The demise of society threatens our privacy

February 24, 2015

Societal concerns are increasingly left to the marketplace to resolve. We no longer discuss and prioritise societal issues in a dialogue with society as a whole. We no longer share, discuss, or build a vision on long term solutions to the problems that we face. They are no longer solved at the (super)national level, by imposing laws or regulations, or creating economic incentives through grants or tax rules. Instead we rely on the concerns and personal choices of individual citizens to create societal change, in the hope that individual decisions in 'the marketplace' will create such change as some kind of emergent behaviour.

Concerns about child labour in the fashion industry are left to be addressed by individual consumers that may or may not buy clothes responsibly. Instead of addressing the underlying causes of unhealthy behaviour, we leave it to individual citizens to change, say, their bad food consumption patterns and stop the global population becoming more obese every year. We fail to create long term strategies to make our economies more sustainable, and instead rely on individuals to invest in solar panels, buy organic food, use their cars less often, etc.

Societal concerns suddenly become the responsibility of the individual citizen, who may be unwilling or incapable to act. The whole approach is based on (the big) assumption that individual action is always possible, useful and efficient.

This is a big assumption. For more complex societal problems, take climate change, individual citizens may find it hard to understand or to agree with the problem in the first place. Information on how to solve the problem may be hard to find, hard to understand, or simply contradict other sources of information. All this information is not necessarily easily translated into concrete, useful individual actions.

There are many other problems with this personal control frame. Individual actions may feel foolish or useless if fellow citizens are not perceived to act responsible too. It may put people into a prisoner's dilemma: their actions will only benefit society if a majority joins the effort, but may actually incur (large) individual costs if most fellow citizens decide not to act. Finally, people are known to value short term gains higher than any favourable long term objectives.

What, you may ask, has this got to do with privacy and civil liberties?

The marketplace has become digital. Personal preferences can now be expressed more directly, through direct interaction with the consumer or the citizen. Personal preferences can also be measured by monitoring our behaviour on the digital platforms we use too stay in contact with our friends, listen to the music we like, read the books we like, view the movies and TV shows we like, and the websites we visit. These platforms may enable the expression of our own preferences, but do so with very little control over who learns about our preferences, and what the consequences of selecting and expressing our preferences are.

Technology is used to support and advance the idea that we can rely on the concerns and personal choices of individual citizens to create societal change. Technology platforms are created to support users to make such individual decisions. The main idea is often to provide feedback to the users based on their current or past behaviour, that will allow them to adjust their behaviour where necessary. Smart electricity meters, for example, allow users to see how much energy they consume, and at what time. This allows them to link certain behaviour to peaks of energy consumption. Personal health tracking appliances (like Fitbit) allow people to measure a wide range of vital statistics about their health, and act accordingly.

The problem with these platforms is that they not only share this information with the people directly concerned, but also collect and process this information for other purposes. This often happens in quite an nontransparent way, without direct consent, and without clear and easily applied control by the user. In order to 'learn what we want' governments and businesses keep a close eye on every move we make.

In fact, even privacy itself is made such a societal concern for the protection of which we depend on the individual choices of consumers... This really creates a vicious cycle. As the social structures around us decay, there are fewer common norms and agreements that we can rely on to guide us through our daily life. As a result we need to negotiate such norms and agreements with the people we live and deal with, and services we interact with, more often. This means exchanging information, exposing our preferences, for every little detail that needs negotiating. And the only way to break this vicious cycle, is to negotiate it over the platforms that created it in the first place.

This is a dangerous state of affairs. The platforms used to support this vision of individual choice are hardly neutral. Their look, feel and design, their algorithms all encode the values of those responsible for their design. The way such a platform 'works' has a huge influence on the preferences we (implicitly or explicitly) express. Like marketing has a huge influence on what the average citizen consumes, such platforms influence how we behave on and within the platform itself. These platforms have a huge impact on their emergent behaviour and hence on the societal change, the solution of societal problems, the burden of which we have shifted to the choices of the individual.

Companies like Facebook, Google, Uber, Airbnb are backed, led and funded by people with a strong libertarian conviction: they strongly support private property and free-market capitalism, while rejecting most or all state functions and accompanying social structures. Their goal is not merely to provide great services and make a lot of money in the process. Their goal is to change society. On their terms. The question we face as society is whether we agree with these terms. And if not, define our own terms, and defend them. By word of mouth, and through concrete action. By developing the tools that encode the principles that we value in our society.

(This article is inspired by two news paper articles that appeared in the Volkskrant of February 21, 2015. They appeared almost next to each other, but didn't connect the dots.…)

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