From the Boidem -
October 29, 2016*: Ain't no need to hide, ain't no need to run.
occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life
Even before the internet, social critics turned to the metaphor of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon to describe our lives in post-industrial society. The metaphor suggests to us, or perhaps reminds/warns us, that ours is a society in which we're always under surveillance. Perhaps more important than the reality of surveillance, however, is the fact that it creates in us a feeling of constantly being watched. We're never really sure whether someone is observing us or not. Wikipedia explains this well in its Panopticon entry:
Although most prison designs have included elements of surveillance, the essential elements of Bentham's design were not only that the custodians should be able to view the prisoners at all times (including times when they were in their cells), but also that the prisoners should be unable to see the custodians, and so could never be sure whether or not they were under surveillance.
In other words, even when we're actually not being watched, our uncertainly causes us, and is even designed to cause us, to internalize the surveillance. Do we behave properly because we've internalized that this is the right thing to do, or because we've turned the camera that's always observing us onto ourselves?
This reality of constant surveillance is far from new. Edward Snowden, in his Christmas message of 2013 told us that governments have created “a system of worldwide mass surveillance”. He compared today's surveillance tools and techniques to those George Orwell described in 1984 and told us that Orwell's “are nothing compared to what we have available today”. He then told us that:
A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all.
Certainly today’s digital surveillance techniques are substantially advanced from those suggested by Orwell, but what I find most interesting about them is the extent to which they’ve not only become an integral, but also an accepted, part of our lives. When I run a Google search on a term on my cellphone, and then a few hours later, while sitting in front of my desktop start typing in a new search which starts with the same letters as that previous, mobile-based, search, I’m not at all surprised that Google’s instant predictive search immediately offers me the term of that previous search. Yes, this is “surveillance”, or at least is made possible by something similar to surveillance, but as spooky as it may initially be, I’m sure that most users find it considerably less of a distressing invasion of privacy than as a desirable companion to their informational needs.
All this, however, is far from new. For years we’ve been living with this digital reality. If at one time it was frightening, or at least confusing, today we tend to see it as quite normal. But "normal" has its drawbacks. Instead of causing children to have “no conception of privacy”, we may instead be teaching them to expect instant gratification, and that may be just as problematic. And at this point someone might justifiably ask why, when I've already acknowledged that this is old hat, I’m dealing with the subject now. And I think that the answer to that question is that it’s precisely the “old hat” aspect that makes it interesting.
In April of this year The Guardian reported that Authors lose out again in Amazon pay-per-page scam. The article described how unscrupulous scammers were able to trick Amazon into “thinking” that readers had read more pages in a book than they really had, and thus get a higher reimbursement on the “pay per page” system that Amazon devised for authors who personally uploaded their books to Amazon and made them available via Kindle Unlimited. As the Guardian explained:
Previously, authors were paid a flat fee for every reader who downloaded their book – typically around $1.30 (89p) per book. But after the change was introduced, they were instead paid six tenths of a cent for each page read, meaning that an author would have to write a 220-page book, and have every page read by every person downloading it to earn the same amount they previously got.
But to me, rather than the scam itself, what's most interesting here is the seemingly totally understandable “fact” that Amazon knows just how many pages of a book we read on Kindle. As a teenager I spent a not insubstantial part of my summer vacations sitting in the backyard reading. I’m sure I read many books through to the end, but there were no doubt others that I wasn’t able to plow through. Back in those pre-digital times I was able, a la Pierre Bayard, to read enough to catch the gist and then claim I’d read the entire book and nobody would be the wiser for my bluff. But today, anyone who might succeed in hacking into my Amazon account (if I had a Kindle account there) might know that I hardly got through the second chapter of numerous books.
Though there’s something more than just a bit frightening here, it hardly seems Orwellian. I don’t feel particularly threatened because Amazon knows how far I’ve read into a book before deciding I don’t see the point in finishing it, though this can certainly be more problematic in the classroom setting. There are, however, other long-term consequences. An author, who justifiably doesn’t write only because he or she feels the urge, but also because it’s his or her livelihood, might use this information to influence his or her writing, changing the plot development so that less readers get bored by chapter four.
The internet giants can definitely make a good case for simply trying to be helpful. While working on this column Tzippi both flew to, and returned from, Canada. Simply by typing the number of her flights into Chrome’s omnibar I was able to get immediate updates on her flights. But the real magic, if that’s what it is, happened when my cellphone "read" my calendar and was able to give me the precise updated flight information - precisely when I need it. That may be a bit creepy, but I doubt that people complain. There's a bit more creepiness when Google becomes overly helpful.
All this basically suggests that Albert King was right when, in the third chorus of his song, he sang that there’s no "need" to run or hide. When someone says that there's "no use" to run we picture to ourselves a situation in which we're caught and can't break free. Resistance is futile. But there's something benign about a situation in which there's "no need" to run. We may be caught, but that lack of "need" suggests that nothing bad is going to happen to us. We can even enjoy the situation. There may be some truth to the warning of the Orwellian nightmare in which there's "no use" to running, but as Neil Postman noted more than thirty years ago, our real danger isn't the Orwellian dystopia, but Huxley's where killing can even be done softly, and which lulls us into convincing ourselves that there's really no "need" to escape. In Postman's Foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death he wrote:
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
and this seems to be considerably closer to our reality. It's worth remembering that Albert Hunter had a "love gun". That doesn't seem particularly Orwellian. Instead, it definitely seems to have Huxleyan overtones.
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