Monday, August 3, 2020

The tyranny of algorithms - X

 The looming inter connectivity between objects in our homes, cars and cities, generally referred to as the internet of things, will change digital surveillance substantially. With the advent of wider networked systems, everything from washing machines to coffee makers will soon be able to communicate, creating a vast amount of data about our lives. And this deluge of data won’t only be passed back and forth between objects but will most likely wind its way towards corporate and government reservoirs.

In his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the panopticon, an idea proposed by the utilitarian philosopher Bentham. The basic setup of Bentham’s panopticon is this: there is a central tower surrounded by cells. In the central tower is the watchman. In the cells are prisoners – or workers, or children, depending on the use of the building. The tower shines bright light so that the watchman is able to see everyone in the cells. The people in the cells, however, aren’t able to see the watchman, and therefore have to assume that they are always under observation.

How government bodies conduct surveillance today is different from this basic model suggested by Bentham. In the panopticon the occupants are constantly aware of the threat of being watched – this is the whole point – but state surveillance on the internet is invisible; there is no looming tower, no camera lens staring at you every time you enter a URL. With Bentham’s panopticon, there is a physical sense of exposure in the face of authority. But typing on a computer at home makes you feel anonymous and emboldens you to share more of your data. My data, however, is under surveillance, not only by my government but also by corporations that make enormous amounts of money capitalizing on it.

The practice of surveillance justifies itself through the discourse of “safety”, “security” and “transparency”. Most people seem to have accepted such surveillance as necessary to 'enhance' the quality of their lives. From shops to schools, from housing societies to office corridors, and from the living rooms to the elevators in high rise buildings — the all-pervading presence of CCTV cameras proves one thing: We love to be controlled, observed, normalized and disciplined. We want what psychologists call 'the locus of control' to be located in outside agencies and devices. Control of people works best when the process is invisible so governments peddle various stories to hide the social costs of the technologies they employ. As Frank Pasquale writes in The Black Box Society:
An unaccountable surveillance state may pose a greater threat to liberty than any particular terror threat. It is not a spectacular danger, but rather an erosion of a range of freedoms. Most insidiously, the “watchers” have the power to classify those who dare to point this out as “enemies of the state,” themselves in need of scrutiny.   
That, to me, is the core harm of surveillance: that it freezes into place an inefficient (or worse) politico-economic regime by cowing its critics into silence. Mass surveillance may be doing less to deter destructive acts than it is slowly narrowing of the range of tolerable thought and behavior.
Tagore said  that all the skills in the world were useless, even baneful, if not wielded by a cultivated imagination and refined critical faculties. But now the pressure of the market has ensured that only the economic value of a person is emphasized. This means that engineers and MBAs are encouraged and there are no takers for the humanities and the arts. In this article, Martha Nussbaum describes a visit to a Swaminarayan temple. She was given a tour by a young man who told her that whenever the leader of his sect speaks, one is to regard it as the direct voice of God and obey without question. She continues:
At that point, with a beatific smile, the young man pointed up to the elaborate marble ceiling and asked, "Do you know why this ceiling glows the way it does?" I said I didn't, and I confidently expected an explanation invoking the spiritual powers of Pramukh Swami. My guide smiled even more broadly. "Fiber-optic cables," he told me. "We are the first ones to put this technology into a temple."  
There you see what can easily wreck democracy: a combination of technological sophistication with utter docility. I fear that many democracies around the world, including our own, are going down that road, through a lack of emphasis on the humanities and arts and an unbalanced emphasis on profitable skills. 
Books like The Net Delusion,To Save Everything, Click HereWeapons of Math Destruction, World Without Mind, The Googlisation of Everything etc., warn of entrusting our future to internet companies. Another book of this genre, The Black Box Society, tells of a fiction genre known as the “self-preventing prophecy” to which these books belong. 'An author imagines a dystopia, plausibly extrapolating to the future some of the worst trends of the present. If enough readers are shaken from their complacency, they start to make the changes that can prevent the prophecy. The author then avoids the fate of Cassandra, the prophetess of Greek myth whose warnings were fated to be disregarded. George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World could both be understood in this way, helping to mobilize resistance to the totalitarian futures they described.'

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