St. Mark’s Adult Forum
19 November 2017
Questions of Value*
‘The really fundamental questions of our lives are not questions of fact or finance but questions of value.’ Patrick Grim, Ph.D.
For the billions of human beings on Earth coping with modernity, one thing is certain: change. In the past change was perceived as gradual and manageable. Not so today. Instead, change appears to be accelerating. The primary driver continues to be technology. The primary motives: necessity, profit and control. Alongside technological change comes social change.
We’ve come a long way in just the past few decades. Personal computers, the Internet, ‘smart phones’, E-commerce, the ‘gig’ economy, and social media have become ubiquitous. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the ‘sociable robot’ are on the horizon. Have an immediate need or desire? Most likely there’s an ‘app’ for that. Now, all this power and convenience is not free, but comes at some cost.
Whether we realize it or not, we pay a price for ‘smart technology’. For smart technology to work properly, it needs data, personal information, and lots of it. Sold on the benefits of this technology, we willingly give up some privacy. Moreover, we may be compelled to act in a certain way to reap full benefit, so we give up some autonomy as well. For now, at least, we do so of our own free will. For how long is uncertain.
Data has become a valuable commodity. Two trends are responsible. First, the ever decreasing costs of data storage. We can imagine a world in which ‘everything’ is collected, digitized and stored permanently. New metrics – discovered or invented – continue to emerge. Second, the exponential increase in computer processing power coupled with the development of data analytics. Today, ‘data mining’ algorithms can parse immense volumes of data – trillions of data points, and beyond. But before data can be stored and analyzed, it must first be located and captured. Hence, new surveillance platforms have proliferated. They range from license plate readers and city-wide TV camera systems to drones, biometric identification systems, and other novel ways of collecting data. These methods typically operate without our express consent.
Paul Rosenzweig, J.D., of George Washington University Law School writes: “Every day, for good or ill, what you do and what you say is under scrutiny – scrutiny from you friends, your coworkers, and your family, but also from the U.S. government, foreign governments, and large commercial data collectors.” Rosenzweig claims we currently live in a ‘surveillance state’. And this fact raises questions from a number of different perspectives.
For starters, we will consider the balance between privacy/secrecy and transparency. We will examine the issue of ‘profiling’ – getting at the truth – via data analytics. Next, we will look at the ‘Panopticon Effect’. Finally, we will speculate on the future of our ‘surveillance state’ – a post-privacy world where all is discoverable, and no secrets are hid.
Privacy vs Transparency 1
In 2013 Edward Snowden revealed to the world what many of us already suspected; the National Security Agency (NSA) was conducting surveillance on United States citizens. This revelation ignited a huge controversy surrounding government intrusion into our lives and the individual’s right to privacy. The NSA is not the enemy; their mission is to protect us. The question is not should the NSA be able to see everything, the question is what should they be allowed to view as a threat, and what checks and balances can we install to ensure the integrity of this process? To resolve this question, both the NSA and our government at large require more transparency and less secrecy. On the other hand, individuals prefer more privacy, not less.
Question: Can we satisfy both demands?
Certain advocates suggest increasing transparency levels the playing field. Everyone can watch everyone. Whistleblowers are everywhere; it’s mutually-assured disclosure. So instead of trying to hide secrets, we should focus our attention on how to share them. Share more instead of less, yet do it more responsibly.
They further claim healthy transparency is not the opposite of privacy. That is, in a healthy transparent society, privacy is an ideal that is strived for and respected as a matter of policy, most of the time, and in the vast majority of cases; yet exceptions are allowable, under specific conditions, when the benefits to society outweigh the costs.
Privacy advocates contend a guarantee of privacy enables individuals to think and act as they please, free of unreasonable and unfair manipulation or control by others. In the privacy of their homes, people should expect to be free to speak with their family or friends about ideas and beliefs that may not be popular with others. Privacy allows all to feel secure in their persons, homes, relationships and beliefs. If your friends respect your privacy, you can feel secure that they will not bother you when you want to be alone, or embarrass you by repeating your personal thoughts and opinions to others. This precept should apply to the ‘state’ as well.
If you’ve found yourself wondering if your concerns about privacy were valid in our culture of ‘oversharing’, know that ordinary people from all walks of life still value privacy. Many see it as a universal social norm, a right warranting protection.
Back in the good old days if you wished to get to know some person, you would directly engage that person face-to-face or perhaps over the phone. It might take a bit of courage at the outset, especially if you were the shy or bashful type. But persistence typically paid off. How quaint.
Today, you can skip all that; just go online and do a Google search. Or sign up with Match.com and read the profiles of others at your leisure. Before you take the leap, feel free to do an online background check. If all checks out, become ‘friends’ on Facebook, and ‘share’ away. Perhaps one day the two of you will actually meet face-to-face. And should things go south, no problem, simply ‘unfriend’ them. Bazinga!
Question: Today, human interaction apparently requires a mediator – the ‘web’. How did it come to this?
Part of the answer is the rise of ‘big data analytics’. ‘Big’ refers to the volume and diversity of data; ‘analytics’ refers to the statistical categorization of that data.
All of us that are actively engaged in the world create an overabundance of data. Public records contain our personal information: vital statistics, property records, court records, licenses, etc. We generate bank records, credit reports, and file tax returns. We accumulate medical, school and military records. If we dabble online, our searches, web browsing and purchases are monitored and stored. All this data ends up in huge data bases. For a price, it’s often shared among various clients.
Big data analytics is a powerful tool. The more data, the more powerful. Consider law enforcement. Watch any reality crime show on TV, and you quickly realize how dependent police are on phone records, GPS tracking, and video surveillance. The U. S. Department of Homeland Security employs profiling to identify potential threats to our nation’s people and infrastructure. Social media platforms track our locations, associations, ‘likes’ and commentary in real time to provide ‘targeted’ content including ads and news coverage. Patterns embedded in big data not only reveal where you’ve been, but also where you’re likely to go. In fact, the primary purpose of ‘big data analytics’ is to find new and unforeseen patterns in a sea of data.
Question: In particular, our digital ‘foot prints’ have proven quite revealing. Big data analytics can predict our personal attributes and behavioral tendencies with a high degree of accuracy. Does this raise cause for concern?
A recent Dayton Daily News article offered the following headline: “Employers less likely to hire those with no social media.” The upshot: no activity on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on could cost you a job.
Question: Now, why is that?
It’s a form of ‘cyber-vetting’. Previously, employers examined resumes to thin out the field of applicants; offering interviews to those who made the cut. But it’s a fact that resumes tend to be biased – ‘inflated’ – rather than balanced and objective. Interviews can be ‘gamed’ as well, so what’s a company to do? The bottom line is this: people are flawed, inherently biased and self-serving; their word alone cannot be fully trusted. On the other hand, an applicant’s online persona speaks louder than mere words. That’s the theory. But can online evidence be trusted? Apparently a growing number of employers think so. So a new layer – online profile – has been wedged into the hiring process. It should be added, once hired, employers are also using social media to monitor their own employees. Questionable content found online can be used against an employee.
Question: It’s not a bad thing to be a private person. A lot of people don’t want to live in the digital world. Are employers making a mistake to dismiss them?
The Panopticon Effect 2
The Panopticon Effect can be traced back to Jeremy Bentham, 18th century British philosopher and social reformer. It concerns both the positive and negative effects that ‘careful scrutiny’ has on our conduct. Ask yourself: How well would I perform with someone silently looking over my shoulder?
Surveillance can enforce good behavior. For example, in school settings a test monitor is present to discourage cheating on exams. Retailers install video cameras throughout their store to deter shop lifting. Similarly, the ‘watchful eye’ of public scrutiny led to the enactment of our FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) laws. Then again, surveillance can be taken to excess.
The very specter of being subjected to continual observation leads some people to alter their behavior – particularly those who lead lives on the edge of social convention – out of concern for how their actions will be perceived. This is tantamount to censorship. This self-editing effect is not limited to ‘Big Brother’ – government, institutional or corporate actors – watching our every move. The recent proliferation of social media has exposed similar effects. ‘Social surveillance’ has pressured many to craft their online identities to both conform and impress. On a darker note, the malign effects of persistent social scrutiny can be seen most notably through acts of cyber stalking and public shaming.
Question: You don’t appreciate being continually watched. What options do you have?
Well, one could simply ‘go off the grid’. Another option is anonymity. With anonymity, people tend to ‘open up’ and speak out boldly, not because they are mean, but because they feel empowered. On the other hand, anonymous actors tend to be more aggressive, ruder and abusive, particularly online. Behind a veil of anonymity, actors cannot truly know or relate to each other. We don’t like being watched, yet ‘in the dark’ we often misbehave.
A Post-Privacy World 1
Privacy is dead. In fact it has been dying a rather operatic death for over a decade. We are now entering the Age of Transparency, an era of increasing openness at all levels of society where it’s become increasingly hard to keep secrets, much less guarantee privacy. We can only adapt to this fact, resistance is futile.
Question: Is privacy really dead?
In a post-privacy world, privacy can no longer be guaranteed nor be expected. As worrisome as this may seem, it might turn out that the post-privacy world may not be as dystopian as some people seem to think. In fact, despite all the negative hype about it, it’s really not that different from the world we live in today. It’s true! Every time we go online, download an ‘app’, subscribe to anything, we agree to the terms of service. We rarely challenge or even consider these terms; we know we give up something in the deal, but we don’t seem to care. So far, the benefits we enjoy clearly outweigh the costs or potential risks.
When people and organizations have the expectation that everything is discoverable, they are actually more careful and diligent. Increased transparency brings about more accountability. For example, it prevents anyone from expecting they can hide wrongdoings and this actually serves to prevent wrongdoing in the first place. When information cannot be hidden it’s actually better to pre-emptively disclose it – and that’s what people do when they realize this. Indeed, there’s no longer any reason to claim ‘I have nothing to hide’ since one’s life is now, in fact, an open book. Think of the implications.
Question: Anything about your life worth concealing?
Perhaps the day will come when ‘others’ are able to discover the content of our mental life: our sentiments, opinions, motives, and intentions. When this final refuge is penetrated, all bets are off. What would human life be like?
The psychological impact would be profound. Our private thoughts are next to impossible to control. Try not to think about a white polar bear. If our mental life is compromised, there will be nowhere else to ‘hide’. Ignorance can no longer be used as an excuse. When everybody’s thoughts are out there for all to see, would chaos erupt? Would we return to Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature? Or would humanity unite in brotherly love?
1 Nova Spivack, CEO and co-founder of Bottlenose,
2 Paul Rosenzweig, ‘The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You’, 2016, The Teaching Company.
* ‘Questions of Value’ taught by Patrick Grim