Big Data, privacy, and civil disobedience

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Back in May, Evgeny Morozov wrote a review for The New York Times Book Review of two books: The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? by Patrick Tucker and Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread — The Lessons From a New Science by Alex Pentland. The review is excellent. I’m mostly going to quote from this review (plus one of Morozov’s books), since this is a huge topic in which I have considerable interest but no expertise. I’ve been thinking about a JAMA article I read recently that discusses the need to convince the public to allow extensive use of Big Data in connection with health care (What’s that you bought at the grocery store? You didn’t renew your gym membership?), and Morozov’s ideas seem related. (Morozov, by the way, considers Big Data an “ugly, jargony name.”)

The problem is you

After quoting from Tucker’s The Naked Future — “our outmoded ideas of privacy begin to get in the way of progress and better health” — Morozoz makes the point that, while we may be able to predict behavior given a sufficient amount of data, that leaves unexplained our actual motivations for behaving as we do. (emphasis added in the following quotations)

Such aversion to understanding causality has a political cost. To apply such logic to more consequential problems — health, education, crime — could bias us into thinking that our problems stem from our own poor choices. This is not very surprising, given that the self-tracking gadget in our hands can only nudge us to change our behavior, not reform society at large. But surely many of the problems that plague our health and educational systems stem from the failures of institutions, not just individuals.

Since the currently prevailing economic/political agenda maintains that individuals are solely responsible for their behavior, it’s always good to see someone such as Morozov point out how narrow-minded this is. I keep hoping that if enough people say this, it will eventually register, but I’m not holding my breath. This is essentially the point Robert Crawford was making about healthism back in 1980.

A reluctance to address larger issues stems not only from the convenience of blaming individuals, but from a mentality inspired by the data that modern technology allows us to collect. This is the mentality of “solutionism,” which Morozov discusses at length in his book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. Solutionism is at work whenever “deeply political, life-altering issues are recast as matters of improving efficiency.”

Solutionism, the self-tracking of health data, and blaming the individual are all related, as Morozov writes in To Save Everything:

Once we abandon thinking for optimizing, it becomes much more difficult not only to enact but to actually imagine reforms of the system being “measured” and “tracked.” One potential problem with quantification is that it encourages the government not to bother with painful structural changes and simply to delegate all problem solving to citizens. Why bother with regulating highly processed foods or improving access to farmers markets and prohibiting fast-food chains from advertising to youngsters? After all, we can simply empower individual citizens to monitor how many calories they consume and not bother with any of these initiatives, pretending that obesity is just the result of weak-willed individuals ignorant of what they are eating. Once it becomes complicit in lending support to simplistic political ideologies of individual responsibility, self-tracking blocks the kind of ongoing self-reflective inquiry that John Dewey held as central to democratic life.

If we made it harder for food companies to sell food that’s unhealthy or to target children, we wouldn’t need to “force consumers to monitor themselves and hone their willpower techniques.”

The audit society: What isn’t measured can’t be managed

Morozov goes on to discuss Pentland’s Social Physics. Social physics is (or will be) a new science designed to make sense of all the “digital bread crumbs” we leave in the course of our daily digital lives.

What is social physics good for? It would allow us to detect and improve “idea flow” — the way ideas and behaviors travel through social networks. For example, Pentland wants to arm employers with sophisticated gadgets that would allow them to monitor the communicative activities of their employees and coax them toward more productive behaviors so their cognitive activity isn’t wasted on trifles.

That this might lead to a new form of intellectual Taylorism, with managers optimizing the efficiency of the brainstorming session (rather than the time spent at the conveyor belt), seems of little concern to Pentland, who dryly remarks, “What isn’t measured can’t be managed”. Employers would certainly love this, but why should employees acquiesce to ubiquitous surveillance? Pentland rarely pauses to discuss the political implications of his agenda, arguing that we must make our social systems more dynamic, automated and data-dependent, as if data, by itself, can settle all political conflicts once and for all.

This is very much the same point Tony Judt makes in his last book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, which Morozov cites in To Save Everything. As Judt writes:

I think we really are the victims of a discursive shift, since the late 1970s, toward economics. Intellectuals don’t ask if something is right or wrong, but whether a policy is efficient or inefficient. They don’t ask if a measure is good or bad, but whether or not it improves productivity. …

The effect of the dominance of economic language in an intellectual culture which was always vulnerable to the authority of “experts” has acted as a brake upon a more morally informed social debate.

Dissidents disguised as deviants

Morozov calls for a debate grounded in philosophy, one that includes the “unautomated options of democratic contestation and deliberation.” What voices, he asks, are we excluding when we use Big Data to automate decision making?

As we gain the capacity to predict and even pre-empt crises, we risk eliminating the very kinds of experimental behaviors that have been conducive to social innovation. Occasionally, someone needs to break the law, engage in an act of civil disobedience or simply refuse to do something the rest of us find useful. The temptation of Big Data lies precisely in allowing us to identify and make such loopholes unavailable to deviants, who might actually be dissidents in disguise.

In To Save Everything, Morozov describes a rather elaborate example of how techonology could have prevented Rosa Parks from being arrested for civil disobedience, but I’ll save that for another post.

In addition to To Save Everything, Morozov is the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2012). He tweets at @evgenymorozov

Related posts:
What the Internet does to the mind and self
The end of privacy
Wikileaks, nerd supremacy, anarchy, dictatorship, and democracy
WikiLeaks and modern medicine
The problem is you
What is healthism? (part one)

Image source: The Wall Street Journal

References:

Evgeny Morozov, Every Little Byte Counts: ‘The Naked Future’ and ‘Social Physics’, The New York Times Book Review, May 16, 2014

Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism

Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom

Patrick Tucker, The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move?

Alex Pentland, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread — The Lessons From a New Science

Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century

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