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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Social Orwell

In all fairness, neither Orwell, nor Huxley, the other great English disutopian could have seen this global stupidity coming. Both assumed, quite reasonably, that the police state would evolve and start clawing its way into our lives, violently, forcibly, prying away at our privacy, until all was revealed. Two-way TV sets would be mandatory and would  reveal our daily motions even from within our very homes minute-by-minute. Thought police would invent creative tools of mind-infiltration to read our ideas just as they formed inside our stubborn heads. We, the wise, prudent citizens, would resist this invasive state, this wish-to-be-omniscient fraternal overseer. We would hide our actions and thoughts and protect our wheres as jealously as we defend our whys.  

How could they have imagined that a short score and a half years after 1984, we would willingly (nay happily, gleefully, sheep-among-the-wolfishly) give the world access to our daily routines, activities, pictures, friends, relatives, religious and political views and even our very thoughts, wishes, hopes and fears? How could they have foreseen that a day would come when so many would so agreeably peel off the remaining fig leaf of privacy and four-sqaurely announce to the world their whereabouts in real time?

No. In all fairness, they could not have known or guessed that what was once quite naturally considered private would become so public as to be the property of Facebook or Twitter, Google or FourSquare. So much so, that one privacy policy says any information given may be handed over without consent to third parties. 

Instead of the feared two-way TV, we now click a button, unforced and under no threat of rats running around on the inside of a face mask, which allows some obscure application developed by someone, somewhere complete, unadulterated access to so much personal data. Data so personal, that if a close acquaintance were to ask for it, we would likely consider them quite lacking in basic etiquette, gauche, tactless or simply rude and nosy. And you need to know where I am right this minute why exactly?

The question is now removed but used to be "What's on your mind?", now it's just called status update. What's on my mind? WHAT'S ON MY MIND?? Is it not enough for you to know who is in the photo with me and where and when and on what occasion it was taken? 

Yet, we, who have become so cynical in so many areas of our lives it's scary, are so naive when it comes to privacy, accepting the promises of the social media overlords, gulping down the lies that our data is safe with them. Even after credit card numbers are stolen and passwords revealed we still believe. Even when not a day passes without a formal half-serious apology is made from one or more of the new landlords of my data and yours, about this or that breach, hack or back door, we forgive. We're sorry, these pathetic apologies start, we made a mistake, and now every little detail about you is out in the open, immortalized on the web (in case you were hoping it would disappear into some virtual black hole soon) and of course searchable too (in case you were dreaming it might be lost in the deluge of over people's data).

But let's stop at search for a moment. Watch this please and dread your future. Of course it's scary that all our data is out there, but it's equally scary that the data coming in to our perceptive field is being filtered and "personalised" so that if you and I were to right this second punch in the exact same search term into google, we would get completely different results. Why? Well because as you just saw "A squirrel dying in front of your house may be relevant to your interests than people dying in Africa." Ouch! That hurt! Almost physically. No. Not almost. Actually physically.

One more example and I will move on. Have you noticed how Facebook chooses for you whose friends updates you get in your feed? Of course you could spend the next three years customizing your settings and get exactly what you want, but the nice guys in Palo Alto have created a little algorithm which goes something like this: yesterday and the day before Hatem didn't read the status updates of X, Y and Z, hmmm...that must mean Hatem is no longer interested in them, so I will no longer show him their updates. That is scary and pretty uncool too.I don't want some engineered algorithm deciding for me what I want. I want to decide what I want!

We are not only being revealed, but in a sickly self-feeding loop, all that is revealed about us, is being used to further deepen us into ourselves and far from the Internet being the wonderful, open, no-limit world it promised to be, it is becoming a self-perpetuating, narrowing down tool which is limiting our horizon, filtering, without our consent or input, what we get to see, in effect, editing our future selves as it were.

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