Pessimistic narratives about technology (continued)

‘They’ are collecting data on us every day, who we phone, where we move, what we buy, who we see, what we do and say. Some at least of this is benign; if ‘they’ know more about where we go then we might be able to have a more rational transport system; if they know what we want there is a better chance that we will get it. But what if ‘they’ have more sinister motives. This was the theme of the ‘Dictatorship of Data’ [1] in which the BBC correspondent Gordon Corera looked at the use of big data in surveillance societies. There were several key themes in the programme:

• The personal data routinely collected today far exceed what was collected in even the most obsessive surveillance societies such as DDR or imagined in dystopian novels such as Orwell’s 1984.
• We are right to think that our actions and movements are being monitored and even if they are not, we increasingly imagine that they are with all the consequences that brings.
• You cannot escape from being monitored. For example the programme spoke to an Ethiopian dissident who found asylum in England only to discover that his movements were being monitored via his laptop by Ethiopian security services, putting any one he contacted at risk.
• There is a flourishing and uncontrolled trade in surveillance. For example there are commercial organisations [2] willing to provide surveillance services to nearly anyone for anything.
• You do not need to monitor everything. For example it might be more useful to access your list of social network ‘friends’ than to know what you are actually talking about.
• Social media, so often seen as the tool for opening up new forms of counter cultural protest [3], provide unexpected opportunities for security agencies to harvest lists of dissenters and to manipulate and disrupt through rogue messaging.

Two further issues which came out of the programme had a more general significance in how we think about Big Data. First, analysis of Big Data only works as our lives are patterned and fairly predictable. We might like to think of ourselves as spontaneous and creative but in practice we are not; we need regularity and order in our relationships and because of this we are traceable. Second, the sheer quantity of Big Data might appear overwhelming and to search for dissenters might look like searching for needles in a hay stack. However with Big Data the ‘haystack’ provide the clarity. In other words deviations from the norm stand out because the norm is so clearly established.

Programmes on the perils of Big Data can easily get stuck into dystopian views of technology but Gordon Corera largely avoided this by offering counter cases. For example he gave space to speakers from the Tactical Technology Collective (TTC) [4] an organisation concerned with ethical use of Big Data in the service of social change. However, as with nearly all reporting of technology, it was difficult to avoid a narrative of inevitability regarding both the impact of technology and our responses to technology. In practice technology has always had unpredictable consequences, those or who predict the future often get it wrong. As an example there were voices in the 1970s which proclaimed that the introduction of technology would mean shorter working weeks and unimagined opportunities for leisure, but compare this to what actually happened [5]. Part of this unpredictability, and something that social science can never resolve to everyone’s satisfaction, is how do we recognise both order / pattern and change / agency. In many discussions of big data [6] there is an ‘ecological fallacy’ which leads researchers to extrapolate from noticing patterns of group behaviour to the assumption that anyone who shares certain characteristics of that group will behave in a similar way. What is more, there is a backdrop to our behaviour which requires explanation: circumstances change and people change with them. As Corera’s programme showed, in spite of unprecedented surveillance, the DDR collapsed and at some time point in time so will the present Ethiopian government. Finally, the programme left you wanting to know more about Big Data and ‘liberal democracy’. Rather than a binary distinction between bad and good regimes doing bad and good surveillance there is surely a continuum.

[1] BBC (2015) The Dictatorship of Data, 17 November 2015 Radio 4 available at
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06pb831
(Note that programmes are usually available for a limited time only).
[2] The programme spoke to FinFisher representatives – for more on Finnischer go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FinFisher. You would guess, given their willingness to speak, FinFisher were by no means the worst example in this murky field.
[3] Castells offers one of the most romantic perspective here: Castells, M. (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social movements in the internet age, Cambridge: Polity Press.
[4] The Tactical Technology Collective is at https://tacticaltech.org
[5] Robins, K. and Webster F. (1988) Athens without slaves…or slaves without Athens? The neurosis of technology. Science as Culture 1: 7-53.
[6] A similar point is made in a growing critical literature on Big Data, see for example Kitchin. R. (2013) Big data and human geography: Opportunities, challenges and risks, Dialogues in Human Geography, 3, 3. 262-267. For a chattier article see
Cukier, K. and Mayer-Schönberger, V. (2103) The Dictatorship of Data, MIT Technology Review May 31, 2013 at www.technologyreview.com/news/514591/the-dictatorship-of-data/

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