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Society is right now at a turning point

Democracy and liberty are increasingly under threat around the world as capitalism and the digital revolution get together to rule your life. In fact, new and newer technologies are not only asking you — and you are willfully supplying — reams of data, but — and, here’s the big worry as outlined by Professor Shoshana Zuboff (one of the great minds at Harvard) — those collectors are modifying and manipulating your data even while you think it is still yours or certainly something you are clear about yourself on.

However, your behavioral data is being ripped apart, diffused all over the mainframes of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others, and stored as tiny bits of factual data about you. It’s called digital abstraction. Say you like listening to Beethoven’s 2nd while sitting in the bath. Data? Bath time noted. Music choice noted. Bubble bath you bought weeks ago linked to your preferences. So too with those towels, the bathrobe, and maybe who you like bathing with (kids, etc.). The soap company will get an offer to sell you lotion as well as the constant pop-up messages to go with it. Bath time is noted and is added to your psychological profile. Beethoven’s 2nd will be played by Alexa or Google’s Home or maybe Siri as a background choice without your ever knowing why the choice was made. In short, they know you, they can pander to you and, without your knowing, can alter your perspective by playing that music, showing those images, enticing you to use that bubble bath… dropping hints to modify your life pattern.

Stop and think for a moment about all the places you access abstractable data about yourself. Your car? A traveling recorder. Your home? Ask Alexa, Google, anything, they know you pretty well. Internet sites, from airline bookings to shopping – all these are who you are, or your data seems to be recoded as the real you to these machines. The machines are digital, not analogue, we record analogue associations and links. Digital machines record separate bits of information — and trade on those bits as complete fact of who you are.

Yes, the FT and the WSJ have pundits who claim, as John Thornhill of the FT does, that the tech revolution has brought so many benefits to your daily life and society in general. And so they should, since both are firmly in the capitalist world looking for expansion of markets, trade and profitable corporations. Thornhill professes that AI has not (yet) worked out to use all your personal data effectively. He’s dead wrong. Ask Cambridge Analytica.

The major problem with all this abstracted information is that it can be manipulated. What, you thought the Facebook dump to Cambridge Analytica was just identifying right and left? No, it was mining that abstracted data to decide which data to use to manipulate Facebook, Twitter and other users. It was targeted and charged as a company to provide results in a specific direction — pro and con. It didn’t find haters and enable them to spew hatred. That’s not what they were hired for. No, what they were hired to do was find the guy who was posting about losing jobs in his town, targeted to identify the guy who only listens to certain types of music, targeted to find gun owners. They profiled these people by selecting abstracted data that could be enhanced, manipulated, refined down to a clean clear message and then used it for nefarious purpose.

Look, I don’t care what they know about me. I’ve stood in a mob and somehow remained who I am — it was perhaps the hardest time of my young life, so strong was the urge to “fit in.” But most people fall prey to mob mentality. 

The digital revolution gives data miners the ability to selectively tune people into a mob with common hates, and common biases. Ece Temelkuran, the Turkish author of “How To Lose a Country” is, quite rightly, terrified of populism and nationalism. 

Those two absolutes do not appear fully formed in any real democracy now any more than they did in the 1930s. They creep in, from the tech shadows now, unchallenged because these devices make our lives seemingly easy. And all this may be sorely underestimated until too late.

 

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.