February 23, 2014 - By now, most people who shop online are aware of the way in which companies try to tailor their offers based on your previous purchasing and browsing history. Being followed by strangely relevant ads everywhere is bad enough, but what if the government started using the same approach in its communications with you? That's one of the key ideas explored in an interesting new article by Zeynep Tufekci, strikingly presented on Medium, with the title "Is the Internet good or bad? Yes."
Tufekci suggests that neither of the two main metaphors regularly wheeled out for today's global surveillance -- George Orwell's "1984" and Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon -- is right: To understand the actual -- and truly disturbing -- power of surveillance, it's better to turn to a thinker who knows about real prisons: the Italian writer, politician, and philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who was jailed by Mussolini and did most of his work while locked up. Gramsci understood that the most powerful means of control available to a modern capitalist state is not coercion or imprisonment, but the ability to shape the world of ideas.
The question then becomes: how can people's ideas be shaped so as to control them? Simply bombarding the population with messages only works for a while, until people become jaded and resistant to them. That's where Edward Snowden's revelations about "big data surveillance" come in, Tufekci suggests: Individually tailored, subtle messages are less likely to produce a cynical reaction. Especially so if the data collection that makes these messages possible is unseen. That's why it's not only the NSA that goes to great lengths to keep its surveillance hidden. Most Internet firms also try to monitor us surreptitiously. She's worried about this approach being used to influence people's political behavior, and points to a recent study in Nature that explored precisely this area: By altering a message designed to encourage people to vote so that it came with affirmation from a person's social network, rather than being impersonal, the researchers had shown that they could persuade more people to participate in an election. Combine such nudges with psychological profiles, drawn from our online data, and a political campaign could achieve a level of manipulation that exceeds that possible via blunt television adverts. Indeed, Tufekci thinks the process has already begun: During a break [in a conference called "Data-Crunched Democracy"], I cornered the chief scientist on Obama's data analytics team, who in a previous job ran data analytics for supermarkets. I asked him if what he does now -- marketing politicians the way grocery stores market products on their shelves -- ever worried him. It's not about Obama or Romney, I said. This technology won't always be used by your team. In the long run, the advantage will go to the highest bidder, the richer campaign.
He shrugged, and retreated to the most common cliché used to deflect the impact of technology: "It's just a tool," he said. "You can use it for good; you can use it for bad." That's hardly very comforting, and neither is Tufekci's concluding thought: Internet technology lets us peel away layers of divisions and distractions and interact with one another, human to human. At the same time, the powerful are looking at those very interactions, and using them to figure out how to make us more compliant. That's why surveillance, in the service of seduction, may turn out to be more powerful and scary than the nightmares of Nineteen Eighty-Four.