Freedom – I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently. Last weekend, Remembrance Sunday in the UK, was a timely and sobering reminder that millions have sacrificed their lives to protect freedom for us and still do. But what are these freedoms that need to be so preciously protected? It seems to me that freedom is inextricably linked to choice. Our freedom is proved when we make the choices we do.
FREEDOM & TECHNOLOGY?
We live today in a world empowered by technology which as well as offering us many new choices also limits our choices in ways that are harder to discover but no less important to discuss. As a result of our hyper-connected and hyper-transparent world we are simultaneously both liberated and shackled. We are liberated to share more freely, interact more diversely and access new and instant knowledge. These benefits however come with downsides, more of our time and attention is demanded leaving us more tired, more overwrought, more stressed than ever before. The choice to switch off from work is made harder by constant availability and speed; connections between people become looser and less meaningful as time spent together is replaced with more frequent, less direct contact; commercial communication and advertising bombards us at every turn cementing the consumer values of our society rather than citizenship. Beneath these more obvious negative impacts are also more sinister and more opaque influences on our freedoms. We now live in a world where almost everything we do and see is a consequence of our past behavior and decisions. This limits access to information, to services and removes the freedom that is to choose to change. See my review of the Filter Bubble – a great book exploring this.
FREEDOM REDUCED THROUGH FILTERING
For example no longer do I see the same output from a Google search that you do. The Google algorithm uses everything it knows about me to give me the results it thinks I want to see and will click on. A computer is blindly making choices for me, filtering and changing my view of what is available in the world. If I am right-leaning in my political views I will see more positive results for David Cameron, if I am left-leaning then more negative. It makes it harder to determine the truth and make informed decision. Computers filter based on our digital footprints in the name of convenience, which of course we appreciate all the more so, because we are so overwhelmed. Extrapolate and you can imagine a world where the choice to access many products and services or be influenced or challenged with diverse viewpoints is largely reduced as it is filtered away either because they are unprofitable or just simply annoying. The available inputs that go into this customization of the world around us are gathering pace everyday. Almost every step of our lives is now recorded in some way. Our identities are virtual and our actions recorded. CCTV on the street, in shops and on public transport watch us. The internet records our every click and view, our email services record who we communicate with and what we say. Our mobile phones record where we are and what we are doing. And these bit of data are becoming more connected and aggregated with each other everyday. The industries that make money from all this surveillance progress three stock defenses: firstly that all this tracking is “blind” as to who we actually are, secondly it is more convenient and lastly that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. These defenses are facile and disingenuous. Whether the identity is a number or address or even an anonymous click stream it takes very little effort to match it to a real individual and this is an increasingly important aspect of the industries that seek to exploit, aggregate and integrate information to make money. It only takes a few variations in the information, such as browser, screen resolution, location, and operating system to identity a specific computer or person and these are available to every website that exists. Convenience is also not a good enough reason to remove freedom to choose – life is diverse and whilst undoubtedly atomizing is still collective and community based. Our well-being and the social good is promoted by creating diverse interactions, information and experience. How much more sustainable would our banking model have been had it maintained contact with ordinary people and it’s social purpose rather than becoming myopic and mono-dimensional. The concept that this level of surveillance is not a problem unless you have something to hide is also dangerous and divisive. It appeals to our sense of right and wrong, or perhaps more accurately, it appeals to the self-righteous. We would do well to remember that centralized intrusion and collection of intelligence on what an individual’s views were and what this could mean about their intentions was crucial for the Nazis in 1930s Germany, the Stasi in communist Russia and the fear and obsession of McCarthyism in 1950s America.
THE RISKS OF OUR DIGITAL FOOTPRINTS
On a less macro level our digital footprints also lead to security and identity risks. It’s these macro and micro risks that led the European Convention of Human Rights to enshrine the human right to privacy. It should worry us deeply that the ability to track and record en mass has proved too tempting for the UK Government who are trying to ensure that up to three years worth of internet, email and other electronic footprints are stored on the whole population “just in case”. They claim that this intrusion is justified in the fight to protect freedom. It isn’t. It seems to me that freedom is to be in control, to be empowered with time and knowledge, and so be able to make the right choices for ourselves. The technologies we have today help connect us broadly with each other and provide access to thin convenient slices of knowledge, the growing opportunity is to help us control these technologies and the fears they create, thus allowing us to gain more freedom over how we choose to spend our time and energy.