We All Live in an Influence Machine

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four presents a nightmare dystopia of humanity curtailed by constant misinformation and devastating surveillance. As such it is a non-fiction allegory of the present. It is congruent with life in Nazi Germany, other totalitarian states and perhaps even more alarming the world as it is today. Digital technology follows us everywhere. We walk into it without seeing, willingly allowing our lives  to be monitored and data about us stored.

In a long article today in the Guardian about life after the many crises Coronavirus has brought, it’s pointed out that:

Not all surveillance is inherently malign, and new tech tools very well might end up playing a role in fighting the virus, but Zuboff worries that these emergency measures will become permanent, so enmeshed in daily life that we forget their original purpose. Lockdowns have made many of us, sitting at home glued to our computers and phones, more dependent than ever on big tech companies. Many of these same companies are actively pitching themselves to government as a vital part of the solution. It is worth asking what they stand to gain. “People have a hard time remembering privacy rights when they’re trying to deal with something like a pandemic,” says Vasuki Shastry, a Chatham House fellow who studies the interplay of technology and democracy. “Once a system gets scaled up, it can be very difficult to scale it back down. And then maybe it takes on other uses.”

Very few of us even in ‘the best of times’ care much about anything beyond immediate personal concerns. Things like climate change don’t (yet) impact on our lives so it’s easy, all too human, to dismiss them. Orwell was intensely concerned about the political dimensions of life, the uses and abuses of power, the potential enslavement of minds. But how often have people said, ‘Politics? Pah. Not interested. All a load of nonsense.’ Or something similar – thereby dismissing in a throwaway remark Aristotle’s basic claim that to be human is to be a ‘political animal’.

Yet some parts of the population see digital surveillance as a sinister intrusion into their lives. We are all bits or bytes transformed by analogues into potential purchasers of products. Digital technology is a marketing dream come true – the ability to micro-process advertising and deliver it with increasing accuracy to the individual rather than the mass.

Let’s take the case of gambling. At a time when awareness is growing about gambling addiction, particularly to digital forms, people in recovery continue to be bombarded with advertisements. Young people who were tracked through their interest in loot boxes become potential fodder for gambling industries: see the Ipsos Mori report, The effect of gambling marketing and advertising on children,young people and vulnerable adults People who may have bet on the Grand National or enjoyed a little online bingo are enticed by ‘free bets’ and introduced to games like roulette. Research shows that electronic roulette in particular can be highly addictive.

Another example would be that if you go to a reputable site looking for, say, vitamins, algorithms may eventually bring you to ‘bottom feeders’ selling expensive, untested and possibly dangerous supplements.

With internet shopping addiction being researched and identified as a genuine addiction, one may ask overall as in the Wired article, Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?

Of course, such a question is political. For who ‘we’ are is a world of differing and frequently stark interests.

Nevertheless, although some of us will be aware of some impacts of some micro-advertising, perhaps the most insidious dangers are those most difficult to see. There is, apart from content, the increasing surveillance of our lives and invasion of privacy by many centres of power. Combined with this, content and information may erode democratic values and voices, may instil the sort of ideologies Orwell warned against.

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