Peering into the Future

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/15/business/media/peering-into-the-future-of-media.html

Of the two readings for today, this was the more interesting one because it wasn’t all about what to call new media/digital media/multimedia/chexmix/multimodality/jackinthebox. It was also more interesting because it posed large questions.

Where is all this media taking us? Are we in a position to control it, or are we merely going to watch as the world changes around us? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

The author here points out just a few things to consider: the growth of a global space for media distribution and consumption, especially in places like Asia, Africa, and Latin America; the current progress of Internet capabilities and the near future’s increasingly diminishing language barriers; the growth of mobile devices as a standard medium, etc. All of these sort of coalesce into a broader picture, but it’s not clear what that picture is. Are we moving into a world that’s going to be more or less diverse? We’re going to be more connected, but does that translate into a more global focus? On a political level, once these technologies start working into all levels of society, and all geographic locations, will there be a paradigm shift with regards to how national sovereignty is viewed?

I would argue that this last questions has great bearing on the current situation regarding the US’s surveillance of foreign countries. In fact, it might be the most important of these questions for our time. Is the growth of new media technologies going to be taken as a good thing or a bad thing, especially when we consider that so much of what enables us to be the digital/social media world is also what enables our total loss of privacy to these types of information-gathering organizations? 

We’re in a sort of Wild West scenario (or we were) with regards to the Internet. Fifteen years ago our perception of the internet was as a wild, dark, creepy place; my father would continually harp that you can’t trust anyone on the internet.

Now we’ll give our SSN out to whoever wants it; we’ll tell Facebook everything they want to know. We’ll let Google into our secret lives, and they’ll use that information to give better advertisements for products we really want. 

Here’s an article that made a particular story famous about a year and a half ago: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-target-figured-out-a-teen-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-father-did/

Target figured out a teenage girl was pregnant. How? They studied statistics, matched up the girl’s buying patterns to those of expectant mothers, and bam, they knew she was pregnant and started sending her pregnancy related coupons and deals. 

Here’s a great quote from a Target employee regarding their totally legal, somewhat creepy advertising practices: “But even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.” See, Target didn’t do anything wrong; the girl bought a lot of stuff from there, they tracked her purchases, and they suggested other items. Nothing wrong with that; it’s downright genius.

The problem, of course, is that Target’s a company using data collected from within the company; that is, Target’s gathering data from its own sales. With regards to the Internet, there’s not just a few companies trying to see what to sell you; there’s multiple large information collection schemes at work, each attempting to construct an image of your life and assess that image for…some reason that’s not entirely clear. The transparency of Target’s scheme is such that, even if it is voyeuristic in many ways, they can explain their reasoning and not look like creeps. These surveillance operations being enacted by multiple governments across the world don’t do that. They admit to their actions, but can’t justify them. There might not be a way to justify them.

Of course, that’s peripheral. Whether or not they can justify creeping on you is irrelevant; it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission. We’d never let them in if they simply asked us to, right?

…wr….

…wroooo….

…WRONG.

We willingly given up our information because we’re caught in a dilemma: we don’t want governments and clandestine organizations snooping through our personal lives, but we do want the rest of the world to do that! And the problem becomes one of permeability: how do I structure my social media/digitally-connected life so that only those that I want to see me can see me and interact with me? The truth is that you can’t: it’s all part of the package. The more our world becomes socially connected through Internet media, the more we open ourselves up for data collection and analysis.

This scares me, because I believe it will negative consequences with regards to national relations. The US is already being lambasted by European nations for illegal spying; China’s internal (and external) surveillance schemes are well-known. But these are just the things that we know about; the idea that other governments besides these are not participating in the same sorts of activities is foolish at best. The entire world is in the process of figuring out how best to monitor themselves.

Which, I think, will lead to a fragmentation of the social media/Internet media world. The more we work on connecting ourselves, the more we find that we’re being watched and scrutinized; the more we’re aware of this monitoring, the more we want to stop it; the more we want to remain private, the more we remove ourselves from social media/the more we seek alternative, less connective forms of social media. The more we’re watched, the less we do.

This is a fear of mine because I want a world that’s interconnected, but not one that’s under the eye of Big Brother (I knew I’d get a 1984 reference in here somewhere). But I can’t help looking at what’s happening in our world, what this author is perceiving as they peer into the future of media, and seeing our privacy being put up for sale to those that can pay the most for it. They can track our movements, they can track our interactions, they can track our monetary habits, our employment habits, our political involvement and our social lives very easily; we’re moving to the point where they can even keep track of our physical and mental health as well.

My father likes to play devil’s advocate when I say these things; his great adage is, “If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear,” but I don’t believe that, and I doubt he does either. Privacy is about more than covering up illicit actions, though even that is a justifiable need for privacy; laws are imperfect and transient, and the idea that privacy shouldn’t be desired because it might lead to the circumvention of some laws is rather authoritarian; our forefathers would not approve.

Beyond that, the matter of privacy with regards to this debate about media is much more contentious. Saying “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear” assumes that: 1. Things you want to hide are by necessity illegal, not simply shameful or embarrassing; 2. The people who are watching you are able to correctly interpret your actions as not illegal (which many, many, many, many lawyers will inform you is simply not a realistic possibility); 3. Your actions are solely evaluated with regards to their legality.

Privacy is about being able to live without fear of being scrutinized. We’re like children in that we don’t want to do what the grown-ups tell us to do, and especially not when they stand there and watch us, expecting us to do it. But then, our social media lives are so open and informative, we basically are like kids being watched by the grown-ups. They gave us a Facebook  and a Twitter to write about ourselves and keep track of who we hang out with; they gave us a mobile phone to track where we are and makes sure we’re never out of reach. And we accepted these gifts because we didn’t truly appreciate how we were opening our lives to them. I think there will be a backlash with regards to this kind of behavior, and I don’t know how large or small that backlash will be, but the focus on privacy will ramp up, that’s a certainty. And perhaps a new form of media will emerge that focuses more heavily on privacy, and another paradigm shift will occur within our Internet media world.

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