In the event of a conflict between this document and a course syllabus, this document will prevail.
Instead, we need a civic solution, because democracy is at risk. InThe Public Interest, then a leading venue for highbrow policy debate, published a provocative essay by Paul Baran, one of the fathers of the data transmission method known as packet switching.
We could check to see whether the local department store has the advertised sports shirt in stock in the desired color and size. We could ask when delivery would be guaranteed, if we ordered. The information would be up-to-the-minute and accurate.
We could pay our bills and compute our taxes via the console. We would obtain up-to-the-minute listing of all television and radio programs … The computer could, itself, send a message to remind us of an impending anniversary and save us from the disastrous consequences of forgetfulness.
But he was prescient enough to worry that utility computing would need its own regulatory model. Here was an employee of the RAND Corporation—hardly a redoubt of Marxist thought—fretting about the concentration of market power in the hands of large computer utilities and demanding state intervention.
Because of the difficulty in rebuilding complex systems to incorporate safeguards at a later date, it appears desirable to anticipate these problems. All the privacy solutions you hear about are on the wrong track. The problem was recognized early on, and little was done about it.
Ordering shirts, paying bills, looking for entertainment, conquering forgetfulness: By the s, however, many digital enthusiasts believed otherwise; they were convinced that the spread of digital networks and the rapid decline in communication costs represented a genuinely new stage in human development.
If only we could now erase the decade we lost and return to the utopia of the s and s by passing stricter laws, giving users more control, and building better encryption tools!
A different reading of recent history would yield a different agenda for the future. The widespread feeling of emancipation through information that many people still attribute to the s was probably just a prolonged hallucination.
Both capitalism and bureaucratic administration easily accommodated themselves to the new digital regime; both thrive on information flows, the more automated the better. Something else is needed: Even programs that seem innocuous can undermine democracy.
Yes, the commercial interests of technology companies and the policy interests of government agencies have converged: Google and Facebook are compelled to collect ever more data to boost the effectiveness of the ads they sell. Many of those programs deal with national security. But such data can be used in many other ways that also undermine privacy.
The Italian government, for example, is using a tool called the redditometro, or income meter, which analyzes receipts and spending patterns to flag people who spend more than they claim in income as potential tax cheaters.
Once mobile payments replace a large percentage of cash transactions—with Google and Facebook as intermediaries—the data collected by these companies will be indispensable to tax collectors. Likewise, legal academics are busy exploring how data mining can be used to craft contracts or wills tailored to the personalities, characteristics, and past behavior of individual citizens, boosting efficiency and reducing malpractice.
A new book by three British academics— Changing Behaviours: On the Rise of the Psychological State —features a long list of such schemes at work in the U.
Thanks to smartphones or Google Glass, we can now be pinged whenever we are about to do something stupid, unhealthy, or unsound. Citizens take on the role of information machines that feed the techno-bureaucratic complex with our data. Even if we tie the hands of the NSA—by some combination of better oversight, stricter rules on data access, or stronger and friendlier encryption technologies—the data hunger of other state institutions would remain.
They will justify it. On issues like obesity or climate change—where the policy makers are quick to add that we are facing a ticking-bomb scenario—they will say a little deficit of democracy can go a long way. It replaces the messy stuff of coalition-building, bargaining, and deliberation with the cleanliness and efficiency of data-powered administration.
This phenomenon has a meme-friendly name: In essence, information-rich democracies have reached a point where they want to try to solve public problems without having to explain or justify themselves to citizens.
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