I recognised the rot all too often, yet chose to ignore it.
The time I was visiting my parents. My dad went out for a walk, while my wife, mum and I settled down for a board game. When he came back we hadn’t started, but had been silently tapping away at our screens for over an hour.
Or the times I snatched glances at Twitter and Facebook waiting for a lift, waiting for the bus, waiting for my wife to make a cup of tea, even sitting on the loo. A reflex, more than a conscious desire.
Or the times I failed to concentrate on a half-hour TV documentary, or a medium-length article or book chapter, and ended up playing a game on my phone. Playing a quick game while eating breakfast. Playing a game before going to bed. The quick, easy hit gained from mastery of a fun task.
These are all the behaviours of an addict. Someone for whom the technology has gone beyond an enjoyable addition to my life, and has started to displace and devalue the things that give my life most meaning. Time spent face to face with close family members I only see a few times a year; time for my brain to decompress in spare moments; time to focus on really fulfilling activities that develop my creative and intellectual abilities.
I was an addict partly because tech companies have employed sophisticated psychological techniques to make me an addict. Over the years I’ve read about this, but buried the thought that I might be ensnared. I read a lengthy essay in the London Review of Books which told me that I Am The Product, but refused to absorb it. Their formula is simple – use deep-rooted motivations like social acceptance and status to hook us in, make it easy to see a few new posts or play another game, and keep triggering our desire with notifications. Put the “Fear Of Missing Out” worm in your brain and let it burrow in.
Worse, we are now facing up to the extent to which these addictions are gifting these companies incredibly detailed personal profiles of ourselves and our social network connections.
Sometimes we explicitly agree to their having our data. Mostly we blithely forget that we’re doing it in return for handy tools to share family photos and manage emails. Companies cynically exploit our boredom with terms and conditions, our tendency to accept all manner of privacy invasions just to get the damn app installed, or to connect to the free WiFi. Most of us are ignorant about the way in which technologies like cookies and IP tracking can follow our every move on the web even where we don’t nominally consent.
Companies are also silently harvesting our data without our even realising it. InLink is installing public WiFi points on our high streets. They can scan the hardware addresses on our phones (“MAC addresses”) and use built-in cameras to track our faces and movements, all without our permission. These are bound to just be the start of pervasive, privatised surveillance networks in our towns and cities.
This isn’t a matter of thousands of little companies each having records of your interaction with them – limited slices of your life that don’t add up to much in isolation. This is a matter of a small number of companies having huge troves of data on almost every aspect of your life.
Mine is not just an abstract concern for privacy, a matter of principle alone.
Think what those few companies can do, armed with that trove of personal data and a powerful set of persuasive technologies and techniques. How easily they can manipulate us, and start to change our behaviour, re-wire our habits and even brains.
If various child psychologists are to be believed, children are already being manipulated by tech companies on an industrial scale. Their techniques could almost make one nostalgic for TV adverts targeting children – so simplistic, by comparison, and so much easier to understand and regulate. We have read stories of failing grades, depression and self-harm for as long as schools existing, but they seem to be proliferating as children become addicted to social media and games. These aren’t the sort of games I played when I was a teenager, designed to be enjoyable but not addictive, and so were easy to walk away from. Teenagers aren’t just hooked on fun productive activities, as when I hid away in my room to build software in open source communities, or learn digital photography skills. Children and teenagers are being cynically targeted by tech companies with aggressive persuasive technologies to get them hooked on totally pointless, poisonous activities.
We are willingly giving a small number of companies and their billionaire owners immense influence over our lives, and control over a growing portion of the economy which flows through or depends upon their systems.
We have no access to the code behind this proprietary technology, no means to see what they are doing to us. I am able to use free software on my own computer and website, software with open source code that anyone can probe, so that I feel fairly sure there are no tracking codes and security holes in there designed to undermine me, no features designed with the sole purpose of getting me addicted. But I have no insight into what is going on behind the scenes with Twitter, Gmail or Dropbox.
Through the Cambridge Analytica furore we have seen how third parties can use our data to sway elections. There is, of course, an element of hypocrisy and hyperbole about the coverage. In the case of Obama and Momentum, left-leaning journalists praise the tactics, and downplay the similarities with Cambridge Analytica by framing them as powerful close cousins of the usual advertising and canvassing techniques. In CA, Trump and Brexit there is also the role of deliberate misinformation, artificial intelligence bots and dirty tricks. There has always been deliberate misinformation in politics – just look any Liberal Democrat election leaflet for examples – but armed with a trove of personal data on you and sophisticated persuasive technologies, political campaigns are far more able to sway your vote. In the process, they are damaging the fabric of democratic society – engendering an ever-more polarised, hateful and cynical politics.
It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see how governments might seek access to our data. Border control agencies such as the USA already seek social media data, and are probably negotiating with companies to get the good stuff. These uses can sound reasonable, but will quickly be exploited by governments in quite unreasonable ways.The rather silly film The Circle speculated that social media users might willingly become law enforcement agents with their ubiquitous cameras, using the tech companies’ unparalleled facial recognition database trained on years of freely shared photos. Gamified lynch mobs. A better film, Minority Report, imagined a world in which billboards recognised your presence to serve customised adverts – something already happening – and at the same time fed data back to the police. Even liberal democracies can quickly turn authoritarian, as our own UK government has repeatedly shown whenever they stick the word “terrorism” into a debate on privacy.
So what do we do about all this? Do we don our tin foil hats and run to the hills? That’s not a choice I’d like to take. I’d be churlish to ignore the benefits I get from much of this modern technology. As I’ve learned through many years of environmental activism, life is about choosing the compromises we can live with, not seeking a pure, angelic existence.
One thing I can do is to raise these issues with friends, family, and my political representatives. I’m going to write to my MP and ask him what he is doing about all this. We need Parliament to be on our side, and to make these issues a national priority.
I can also take steps in my own life. I think of this like drugs – addictive substances that I am not going to rule out of my life entirely just because coffee and alcohol can be harmful.
Use in moderation – I am banning myself from social media and games in the evenings, weekends and on holiday, and training that reflexive glance out of my system.
Use safely – I’ve enabled the Do Not Track option on my web browsers, try to avoid connecting to open WiFi networks, use DuckDuckGo for searches instead of Google, and share as little personal information and media as I can.
Avoid the downright harmful – I have quit Facebook and deleted my profile, because I think the platform and the company are inherently abusive and I just don’t get enough out of it to justify keeping my profile.
I’d be interested in other tips or thoughts.