Monday, July 20, 2015

The Internet Panopticon

panopticon haloCan the Internet keep us informed and socially integrated?

The Internet is a vast collection of information, opinion, images, and data.  It informs my discussions with facts and figures, it delights me with photographs and stories from around the world, it serves data and algorithms that help me to help others.

The Internet is a dense and personal communications network,  keeping me connected to family, to friends ,to colleagues, to interest groups.  More than email or Facebook / Instagram, it gives me a showcase for my photographs, a medium to discuss my writing, and a forum to plan travel and meals.  As an expat, it teaches me language; as an entrepreneur, it finds me investors.  It both creates and solves many social problems.

Can the Internet predict our behaviors?

  • The Internet remembers
    • Your searches, your purchases, your location, your correspondence.
  • The Internet associates
    • The movies, music, books, friends and web sites that people like you prefer.
  • The Internet anticipates
    • The best route to the places you are likely to go next, which email to prioritize, the news stories you’ll want to read, coupons for your most-purchased grocery and personal items.
  • The Internet advises
    • How long it will take you to read an article on Kindle or Medium, people you should get to know better on LinkedIn and Facebook, your forgotten photos that can be bundled into a pleasing memory scrapbook.

The Internet does this by continuously collecting data and signals, building up a Panopticon 2detailed profile and narrative of our individual qualities and activities.  It is primarily done by businesses, not governments.

It is surveillance on a scale and detail that no population has ever experienced.

Of late, my tablet has started to congratulate me for meeting a standard fitness goal (a laughable You’ve walked an hour! ).  My phone reminds me that I have twelve Dutch vocabulary words waiting for review, and Google Now is inquiring about my daily trips to the Leisure Center, asking whether I work there.

How large a step is it to making these messages directive?  Will recipe searches yield only results that fit my nutrition goals?  Will my driving speeds and efficiencies factor into the way that my TomTom chooses routes to my destinations?  Will my digital assistant change tone and language to keep my stress low and my outlook positive?

Can the Internet hold us accountable for our actions?

In Western countries, while government surveillance is generally unpopular (74% opposed), commercial surveillance is less of an issue (45% opposed) as long as privacy isn’t breached, benefits are delivered, and recommendations don’t become too ‘creepy’.   However, research into the psychological effects of constant surveillance suggests that it could cause stress and social friction.  Up to a quarter of people already report changing their online habits to avoid unfavourable monitoring.

Totalitarian societies are considering how personal profiles and narratives can be used to promote better socia; behaviour.  It is a painful awakening to find that the libertarian ethos underpinning much of the evolution of technology has fostered systems that enable more total control over individual lives than at any time in the past, observes Rogier Creemers in a recent article on how the government is shaping the Internet in China.  Internet technologies are increasing the ways to stabilize political and social systems, manipulating rules, norms and computer code in such a way that citizens are nudged into rationally acting out the leadership’s will.

In 1843, Bentham proposed an architecture for a model prison, the Panopticon:

The building is a series of holding cells fitting within a semi-circular structure, panopticonwith a tower in the center for guards.  Ideally, the prisoners cannot tell if the tower is occupied at any given time.  A social energy is created from this, as inmates can see across into other cells and feel the suggested presence of authority, holding each other accountable for maintaining order.  In this way, power becomes homogenized and more perfect.

Has the Internet become a virtual Panopticon? 

The Internet remains a free space whose inhabitants may follow their interests and express themselves as they want.

But our activities are continually recorded and statistically analyzed by surveillance programs.  Recurring patterns are used to build comprehensive individual profiles.  statistical extrapolations and  comparisons allow predictions of individual preferences and behaviours.

The result has the potential to inhibit, promote, and mold people’s perceptions and actions to serve broader political, commercial, and social goals.

P.S.: (Added Jul 24 2015):  Universities assess remote tracking to maximise study habits.

At Dartmouth College, tutors have trialled an app installed on students’ phones that measures how long they spend sleeping, studying, partying and exercising. The intention is to advise undergraduates on how to change their behaviour to maximise their grade potential, as well as identifying those who may be under stress and likely to drop out of the course early.

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