Privacy and Autonomy in the Digital Age is a series I’m writing to share my insights into disruptive risks that we face, individually and collectively, due to the digitization of the world. As I wrote in Part1, my technology adoption crystal ball says that the convergence of pervasive digital data, smart devices and their centralized [cloud] control enables unprecedented surveillance and control of people at a very low cost. This post offers various suggestions for mitigating the risks, while Police State Scenarios (Part3), discusses ways that collective loss of autonomy may unfold.
Where to Focus our Actions?
A quick study of human history shows that countering political dilemmas by attacking technology tools is fruitless. Tools that are useful by some people are never discarded. The oft-referenced Luddites became a mere footnote of history. Even if the vast majority of people voted to destroy digital/AI tools or technologies, someone would keep the secret and develop them behind the scenes. Nuclear weapons are another useful example; once invented, human creations are remembered, especially now because storing information is so easy. We can’t prevent the tools. So it’s important to focus our action in the right area, which is politics and governance.
Here is a short list of actionable things we can do, arranged in roughly order of commitment. The easiest are first.
Maintain Analog Behaviors
You can increase your autonomy and lessen your dependance on digital services and devices by increasing your awareness of how you use the latter. I am an intense user of digital, but I have regular “detox” weekends or weeks. I like the flexibility I have when I can do everything I need to do without my iPhone or laptop or Internet. It’s also fun to go a day without electricity or gas. Ditch your digital concierge/personal assistant (i.e. Siri) during a business trip. Create your own blackouts. This is a lot of fun, and it’s very useful because it puts you in touch with life from a much different perspective. It also makes you far more resilient and autonomous. Digital detox can also have significant emotional and health benefits.
Another kind of detox is media and entertainment systems. Don’t ingest TV, movies, news for a weekend. I do this often, and I miss nothing. My focus on things that are more important increases incredibly when I do media detox. Since it’s so repetitive, I miss nothing.
You can expand this idea further to include your physical wellbeing. Stop using machines. Take the stairs. Walk and bike more. Walk in nature, especially woods. Do intermittent fasting in which you sporadically skip meals; it’s amazing how easy this is once you’re used to it. The point is to increase your flexibility, physically and mentally. The “average American” ingests far more “food” than s/he needs and only walks 5,100 steps per day. This population is very inflexible and vulnerable to systemic disruptions. Don’t let this be you. Vulnerable are more subject to control.
Be Mindful of Adopting Smart Devices
Few people understand the privacy ramifications of the technology they adopt “because it’s cool.” Examples are home digital concierges like Amazon Echo and Google Home as well as autonomous cars and smart homes. Each device gathers and can expose data about your behavior, and analytics enables third parties to predict your behavior to an astonishing degree by comparing your patterns with thousands of others. Moreover, concierges by design connect other smart devices, so they give a more complete picture of your behavior and enable external parties to take control of them (car, house, health device..). Few people are aware of the risks such devices create. Any device that is “smart” produces data about you and is subject to being hacked or controlled by outsiders; this is a simple fact.
Since exceptionally few of these devices are truly needed, large parts of the population are incurring these risks without receiving any substantial benefit other than “gee wow” coolness.
Market competition is driving the “centralized control trend” because each product maker vies to become the hub, so its market value and competitive position will increase. These are well known business strategies. Such vendors pay minimal attention to privacy and the risks discussed here. We cannot depend on vendors to protect us because they only design protections that don’t hurt their business strategies. They are not responsible for us.
You can say no with your pocketbook. Personally, I will only use such devices if I have use cases that override the risks, but I won’t do it “just because.” I don’t mind controlling my devices personally ;^), and it’s healthier for my body to be exposed to a cool house when I get home. I turn up the heat manually.
Be Aware of “Privacy”
I put privacy in quotes because what we used to mean by privacy is already a relic. We are all creating data about ourselves constantly, and mechanized systems will increasingly be able to reconstruct our lives after the fact (imagine your “clickthrough” as you go through your day, captured on cameras in offices, stores, streets, not to mention your smartphone). As of writing, data from security cameras and street cameras is too poor to use for face recognition, but that will certainly change as the tech improves. So our lives will probably be able to be reconstructed at some point in the future. For now, I think about others’ privacy when I take a video or photo. I’m aware of people’s faces, especially when I’m close up; they may not want to be photographed. Facebook Live and Periscope create data about people that can be later used, and is, by law enforcement.
Also be thinking about what you want in terms of privacy. I predict that local communities will govern this on the ground. Find other people in your community, discuss and organize, so you can make your governments aware of your wants.
Strengthen Trust Around You
Trust increases security and lessens the perceived need for costly security services. I am strengthening trust in my local community, in small steps. I’ve learned in my work that small touches can be surprisingly powerful. For example, ethnographic research reveals that many people go through the day without a kind word from another person, and people increasingly live alone, which increases their isolation and feeling of vulnerability. Although few people are aware of it, their aloneness increases their perception of insecurity, and a portion of them will vote for more “security” tools and services.
Try these small touches (they’ll make you feel good, too). The best thing about them is they are easy and powerful:
- Be present. Save your headphones for work. Look around you, and listen. It’s a beautiful wacky world that’s happening all around you. I live in an urban jungle, and I love the variety. This moment will never come again. Commuting by public transit is awesome for checking out the vibration of the day, how people are responding to their environment, the weather, etc. I also have a huge music collection, but I rarely use headphones when I’m out.
These other suggestions work best when you’re present.
- As a Chicagoan, I spend a fair amount in lines. Look at the people around you. Smile by noticing something silly, stupid or funny, and mention it to someone around you. This is so much fun, and it’s easy. Other people around you enjoy your conversation, too, and sometimes they join in.
- Get to know your neighbors. However well you know them, get to know them better. Look for chance encounters, make small talk, invite someone over for tea or a glass of wine. Of course, approach people for whom you have at least neutral feelings; make this fun for yourself. Knowing your neighbors will make you more resilient and relaxed at home. Humans are so wired for sociality that our brains release endorphins during social interactions.
- Thank people. Remember, every interaction is an opportunity to touch a person, figuratively. Talk to your barista or bartender, people in stores and reflect on what’s going on. For example, I just got another tea, so I said to my barista, “Wow, what a rush that was.” So that gave him the opportunity to decompress a minute. It makes him feel better to know that someone is considering him. A series of small touches creates relationship. By acknowledging that I’d seen how hard he’d worked, I lowered his stress level. He smiled, and so did I. Not only that, other people around us feel that kindness, and they relax, too. These little interactions will make you feel better, too.
- Say hi to people you pass on the street, in buildings, in elevators. This is so much fun because their responses are all over the map. Some people look at you weirdly, some people ignore you; others break into beautiful smiles because you have surprised them. With very few exceptions, people always feel better when someone cares or considers them, even if their responses vary. For this to be most effective, don’t be motivated by the urge to generate responses. Even if someone scowls, you still touched him/her. And people around you observed your interaction and were also affected.
- Care about the places you’re in. When I’m in my neighborhood, I walk about 3/4 mile to my Starbucks, and I pick up trash on the way. Many times, I’ll find a plastic bag I can use to put smaller things in. I focus especially on alcohol bottles and cans, beverage cans, water bottles, cigarette boxes and brightly colored wrappers because these are most noticeable. And I’ve discovered something amazing. My 3/4 mile stays surprisingly clean. And now it’s always clean, even though I walk it only a couple times a week. People see me caring, and this affects their behavior and amplifies the impact. Again, I do this when I want to; if I don’t feel like it one day, I don’t. It’s not a job. But I love seeing how clean it stays, and I know that thousands of other people appreciate it, too. I end up doing it almost every time.
- Talk with police officers. This is an easy way to show them experientially that you see them as people. I talk to them in Starbucks when we’re in line, etc. Through ethnographic, I have seen how little human touches can have huge impact, especially with people who are under stress.
By the way, I don’t practice the above ideas indiscriminately; I choose the people for these interactions based on their motion and expressions. The main principle, though, is that I do these things for myself, so I don’t depend on any type of response to have it be rewarding to me; for this to work, it has to be fun for me.
Communities are the bedrock of human civilization, and I hypothesize that several generations of relative anonymity in U.S. populations has led to weak communities, and it has increased people’s perceptions of vulnerability. I think that large parts of the U.S. even have a community crisis, and this contributes to a widespread desire for safety. Weak communities have more of a need for law enforcement.
There’s a trade-off here: either we take steps to help ourselves feel safe, or we depend on (and pay for) government to provide “safety,” which will include more surveillance and policing.
I have made a significant change in my approach to thinking about community and society. I have shifted away from top down to grass roots thinking. I used to think that to solve big problems, we needed big solutions. And you’ll never guess who started this train of thought in me: Bill Clinton, when we both spoke at PanIIT (see Big Problems, Small Solutions). The problem is, many large organizations and government processes are slow, overburdened or dysfunctional. Ultimately they aren’t satisfying. Many people have lost faith in large systems. Grass roots can be more empowering and immediate. Of course, I am using both. Okay, what does this look like?
- After you’ve been experimenting with things like the suggestions under “Strengthen Trust” above, talk with other people about your experiences, and invite them to try them too, or related things. Meet at someone’s house, a coffee shop or an online space to exchange experiences and grow the group.
- When organizing, just remember that few people understand “the power of small touches” that I described above; I discovered it by accident while practicing experiential. Most people have a bias toward large solutions because that’s how we’ve operated for several generations. So be patient with people. Encourage them to experiment and find what works for them. This is another instance in which it’s more rewarding and effective to focus on the journey, not the destination.
- For this to work, it can’t be “work”; it has to be enjoyable, and people derive enjoyment from different things. So it’s not what everyone in the group does that matters. It is the act of caring that matters. Bond your groups around the act of caring. When you care for your community, you care for yourself. This is rewarding in itself.
- When you are motivated by doing this for yourself, you’ll be prepared to lead. People feel leadership. Leaders don’t look back to see if anyone’s following because they’re going anyway.
- You will encounter “community support” organizations and nonprofits, so consider how you might work with them to increase impact, based on what forms your community building is taking. Most of them will love hearing about what you’re doing. But don’t get wrapped up in this; the important thing is that you control the things you do. It’s terrifically empowering to do things yourself. Once you start experiencing that, share your experience with others and invite them to try something.
- In the U.S., we are experiencing the tragedy of the commons in which our prolonged focus on the individual has led to the attitude, “It’s not my job” with respect to all common areas like streets, parks, schools, and the environment. A small group of people can have a huge impact because they serve as an example. Remember that what you’re doing will have a larger impact than you know because humans are so social they cannot resist watching others, although they will often pretend not to ;^), and you affect their behavior even though they may not be aware of it. The breakthrough for me is that I ground myself in the awareness of how nurturing the community is pleasing to me. I can do something, and I do. I don’t depend on anyone else’s response to motivate myself.
- If you have children, create opportunities to connect with other families in the community, and you need not limit yourself to the school community. If you live in an urban area, realize that you’ll have the school community and your hyper-local community (i.e. your street, block). This also works if pets are important in your life.
- In the U.S. it’s obviously an understatement that there’s a trust crisis between police and their communities. You can make a big difference by working with community policing programs. They can be fantastic opportunities to work with police in largely preventive ways. This will increase your awareness of community law enforcement issues and how police are dealing with them. Getting angry and aggressive with police usually has a negative effect because it isolates them from you. As in all parts of humanity, powerful exceptions can loom larger than life, and it can be easy to forget that the majority of police are well meaning and want to serve.
- In all the above, beware the widespread tendency to let others handle the issue. By all means, recognize organizations’ competencies, but you have unique abilities to bring to the party, too. Don’t let anyone convince you that you don’t. If you let others handle it, you lose autonomy.
Get Involved in Government
Of course, government exists on various levels like local, state and federal. “Local” may refer to city, county, or some other. If you are still reading, you are probably concerned about the possibility of nefarious uses of these powerful surveillance and enforcement systems. Look around and monitor how these technologies are being used in your community, and engage on the level that’s appropriate. Here are some ideas:
- My crystal ball says that, since there is no federal standard for governance of surveillance and enforcement technologies, decisions will emerge at the local level. For example, I can imagine surveillance-free cities emerging in patterns resembling the “sanctuary cities” response to the immigration/deportation crisis.
- When it comes to law enforcement, give police the benefit of the doubt. They are people just doing their jobs, and they are caught in the middle of all this. Many citizens are afraid and angry, and clashes with police are constant, which elevates the risk of being a police officer. Police are uncomfortable and afraid, too. Related to this, I think the lesson of Vietnam veterans in the U.S. is also instructive: they served and returned “home,” only to find themselves rejected by an angry populace. This service and rejection became a powerful social and emotional wound, which directly contributed to their difficulty in reentering, their high rates of suicide and violence. Police in some communities probably have a similar dynamic. Dial into how these trends are playing out in your community. Think about it. A little empathy goes a long way.
- Talk about the perceived need for security in your community, and learn how people are thinking about it. Simple online searches of your community will help you find people who are concerned and organizing a dialog and actions around systems of mechanized power. Connect with them.
- After you’ve informed yourself about these technologies, reflect on what you want. Tell your federal, state and city representatives what you want. Your voice will be magnified greatly if you organize and collaborate with other citizens with similar goals. You can also communicate with them individually. If they don’t hear from you, they might assume what you want—wrongly.
- Remember, the technology/tools of mechanized power are implemented piecemeal; governments are trying to do their jobs, so don’t be paranoid. But adoption, regardless of motive, enables mass surveillance and control. We can only decide whether to recognize it and respond to it—or let it happen to us.
- I can find no one tool to find all elected officials with one search, only state and federal. So you’ll need to search your city/county/territory officials separately. BallotReady is a nonpartisan startup that makes informed voting easier.
- Rethink Terrorism
I have been astounded at the success of terrorists in monopolizing the attention of people and governments since 9/11. Since the core meaning of terrorism is using surprise to induce and magnify large amounts of fear, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
In high school, my closest friend was Israeli, and he explained life there, that every family had someone killed or maimed by war. Everyone has neighbors or family that have been killed or hurt in terrorist activity. But life goes on. Israelis accept it.
The technologies and economics of terrorism (see Brave New War) guarantee that it will become more widespread. Although this is a very unwelcome development, we can only choose how we respond. I think we need to think about the trade-off we face:
- Submit ourselves to invasive surveillance and robotic control systems that purport to maximize safety.
- Accept a certain level of death and injury in exchange for less invasive surveillance and control.
The first choice is very predictable; if we follow this path, we will completely lose our individual rights when an outlier group seizes control of surveillance and control systems. The second choice involves more uncertainty: at worst, some of us will be wounded or killed, but our families and communities will live freer.
I don’t see enough discussion about this trade-off, so I think we need it. We are deciding in favor of option1 by not deciding. We are losing the choice, and we need not lose it.
Conclusion: Protect Yourself from Pervasive Surveillance
Many modern societies have become alienated from themselves, so they feel vulnerable and want protection. Through ethnographic research, I’ve learned many social hacks that can have quick surprising impact, and I’ve shared many here in the hope that you will try some of them.
My insights from ethnographic largely rest on principles I’ve learned from studying anthropology and primates. It’s a fact that humans are profoundly social, and in “modern” societies we’ve neglected our communities in favor of the focus on the individual. I’ll wager that humans cannot live well in the long term if their communities are neglected. Humans cease to be human when they’re isolated from community.
Much of the technology I detailed in Part1 is outside of individuals’ control, so I’ve focused these remedies on things we can control. In Part3, I’ll describe various scenarios of the abuse of technology and data, and I’ll suggest possible responses to those.