Digital Passivity

By Jaron Lanier
New York Times

I fear that 2013 will be remembered as a tragic  and dark year in the digital universe, despite the fact that a lot of wonderful advances took place.

It was the year in which tablets became ubiquitous and advanced gadgets like 3-D printers and wearable interfaces emerged as pop phenomena; all great fun. Our gadgets have widened access to our world. We now regularly communicate with people we would not have been aware of before the networked age. We can find information about almost anything, any time.

But 2013 was also the year in which we became aware of the corner we’ve backed ourselves into. We learned — through the leaks of Edward J. Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, and the work of investigative journalists — how much our gadgets and our digital networks are being used to spy on us by ultra-powerful, remote organizations. We are being dissected more than we dissect.

I wish I could separate the two big trends of the year in computing — the cool gadgets and the revelations of digital spying — but I cannot.

Back at the dawn of personal computing, the idealistic notion that drove most of us was that computers were tools for leveraging human intelligence to ever-greater achievement and fulfillment. This was the idea that burned in the hearts of pioneers like Alan Kay, who a half-century ago was already drawing illustrations of how children would someday use tablets.

But tablets do something unforeseen: They enforce a new power structure. Unlike a personal computer, a tablet runs only programs and applications approved by a central commercial authority. You control the data you enter into a PC, while data entered into a tablet is often managed by someone else.

Steve Jobs, who oversaw the introduction of the spectacularly successful iPad at Apple, declared that personal computers were now ‘‘trucks’’ — tools for working-class guys in T-shirts and visors, but not for upwardly mobile cool people. The implication was that upscale consumers would prefer status and leisure to influence or self-determination.

I am not sure who is to blame for our digital passivity. Did we give up on ourselves too easily?

This would be bleak enough even without the concurrent rise of the surveillance economy. Not only have consumers prioritized flash and laziness over empowerment; we have also acquiesced to being spied on all the time.

The two trends are actually one. The only way to persuade people to voluntarily accept the loss of freedom is by making it look like a great bargain at first.

Consumers were offered free stuff (like search and social networking) in exchange for agreeing to be watched. Vast fortunes can be made by those who best use the personal data you voluntarily hand them. Instagram, introduced in 2010, had only 13 employees and no business plan when it was bought by Facebook less than two years later for $1 billion.

One can argue that network technology enhances democracy because it makes it possible, for example, to tweet your protests. But complaining is not yet success. Social media didn’t create jobs for young people in Cairo during the Arab Spring.

To be free is to have a private zone in which you can be alone with your thoughts and experiments. That is where you differentiate yourself and grow your personal value. When you carry around a smartphone with a GPS and camera and constantly pipe data to a computer owned by a corporation paid by advertisers to manipulate you, you are less free. Not only are you benefiting the corporation and the advertisers, you are also accepting an assault on your free will, bit by bit.

The rise of this consumer-surveillance economy is the uncomfortable and ironic backdrop to the outrage about the N.S.A. snooping. We feel violated. We don’t know who has been reading our most tender emails. But why then were we pouring all our personal information into remote corporations to begin with?

Unless we resist giving away our information in exchange for a few free treats, we can’t expect to prevent the government from dipping into that same data. 2013 was a year when our noses were rubbed in our own passivity. Citizens in the information age have to learn to be more than just consumers; they have to learn to be a match for their own inventions.

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