I want all of your mind
People turn the TV on, it looks just like a window…
What’s the point of even sleeping?
— St. Vincent, “Digital Witness” (2014)
Each day seemingly brings new revelations as to the extent of our Faustian bargain with the purveyors of the digital world in which we find ourselves. Our movements, moods, and monies are tracked with relentless precision, yielding the ability to not only predict future behaviors but to actively direct them. Permissions are sometimes given with pro forma consent, while other times they’re simply baked into the baseline of the shiniest and newest hardware and software alike. Back doors, data breaches, cookies and trackers, smart everything, always-on devices, and so much more — to compare Big Tech to Big Brother is trite by now, even as we might soon look back on the latter as a quaint form of social control.
While data breaches and privacy incursions are very serious and have tangible consequences, debates over user rights and platform regulation barely scratch the surface. Deeper questions about power, autonomy, and what it means to be human still loom, largely uncovered. And when these concerns are even voiced at all they can often seem retrogressive, as if they represent mere longings for a bygone (pre-internet) time when children played outside, politics was honorable, and everyone was a great conversationalist. Despite ostensible consternation when something goes egregiously wrong (like influencing an election, let’s say), the public and political conversation around mass data collection and its commercialization never goes far enough: why do so many seemingly reasonable and critical people accept a surveillance-for-profit economy (with all of us as the primary commodity) as tolerable at all?
To answer this question, we have to look at privacy from an entirely different angle, one that sees the advent of omnipresent, omniscient technology as satisfying basic human needs rather than violating them. In this view, perhaps the reason for the mostly uncritical acceptance of technopolistic trends is that on some level it actually resonates for people. Yes, we know that many of the products are engineered to tap into fundamental desires to be liked, to be seen, to feel important, to be reaffirmed (in carefully doled out neurological doses), to register and be recognized. Yet the tendencies predate the technologies, and if it wasn’t this it would be something else.
For instance, the totalized gaze of the narrator/viewer in most movies and programs is so engrained that we rarely notice it, casually enjoying the voyeuristic ride we take on the backs of characters assembled. In film the viewer is there for every mundane moment, every disappointment and poignant revelation, every coincidence, every interaction — at least those that make the cut from idea to script to broadcast. This leaves viewers in a paradoxical state of apparent omniscience and susceptibility to manipulation, and is part of the artifice of good storytelling. This duality of power and persuasion applies to new media as well, where any viral video is notable for what it captures and what it omits. In both realms, we become a kind of co-pilot, a witness to everything in the field of vision, a validator of conduct and an accomplice in artifice. We decide when a character (fact or fiction) is being misjudged, acting deviously, driven to extremes, or doing something quietly heroic. We sign off on the solidity of their perspective.
Humans have conceived of external observers for a long time, whether in the form of authorities among us or gods above. Consider how many of us (secular and religious alike) may long for such an audience on our solitary journey, someone who sees all the little moments that define us and is invested in the trajectory of our lives. This virtual road buddy is by definition on our side, at least in terms of point of view if not viewpoint, serving as a recorder of our struggles and triumphs, keeping the ledger on how we will ultimately be judged. We can’t really rely on other people for this, after all, since they’re too consumed with their own myriad insecurities, internal dialogues, and obsessions with impression management. Whereas others only see the outward moments that we carefully curate and/or blithely forward, the omniscient viewer — the one whose affirmations and likes we really covet — is with us all the way. And even when the data gleaned by our digital companions is used to target us for advertising or worse, it still affirms the basic notion that someone cares, and that we matter.
In this sense, it often appears that we have come to crave publicity more than we value privacy. This surely is not by happenstance, since it taps into a basic human desire to be recognized. But the modern version is subtler and more sinister, with technology not merely recording our desires but shaping them as well. Everything from images of beauty and measures of success to the taste of food and the cadence of broadcasting is cultivated through a combination of repetition and reinforcement. When it comes to privacy in the social media era, the stakes are even higher than simply guiding what we consume; now it is about how we are being consumed by others, how we create our own brand and become promoters and marketers with ourselves as the principal commodity. Privacy is the antithesis of this, serving to keep parts of us from being recognized and thus failing to maximize the potential for growth and gain.
Regardless of how long people have desired being seen, we still have to evaluate carefully whether the version of Big Brother that Silicon Valley built is meeting this basic need without leading us down a road on which there is no exit and no return. As we fully enter into this era, it is important to consider how the escalating network of devices and data streams is more than merely the object of our consumerist affection. In short order it is becoming our digital witness, our personal seal of approval, and our novel hope for understanding if not outright absolution. The science (or is it mysticism?) of chronicling our every thought and movement may soon yield a world where literally nothing is truly private anymore, and where this realization actually brings a sense of comfort and confirmation.
In his classical formulation of the panopticon over two centuries ago, Jeremy Bentham conceived an all-seeing vantage point that would leave those within its ambit susceptible to being watched at any time. While this seems like an ominous harbinger given the surveillance society as it has evolved, Bentham’s notion was somewhat more benign in its intentions if not its implications. In essence, the panopticon was designed to inculcate the arbiter’s gaze within those exposed to it, cultivating self-reflection and moral behavior out of fear of being caught by the omniscient observer but without having to use actual force to impose discipline. The net effect was minimal external pressure yielding inner transformation.
Today’s manifestations may be more like a tranopticon, a term I’ve coined to describe a scenario that isn’t just all-seeing but ever-evolving. Unlike the traditional panopticon, it isn’t passive or fixed; rather, it is transactional, intelligent, dynamic, and capable of being dialed up to prove a point, reach a decision, explain an action, or magnify a transgression. It is less about the totalizing gaze of the watcher and more so about the myriad of gazes that includes ourselves. While its gleanings don’t represent the truth (since others will have their own POV-molded realities), it will loyally capture our verities by being there for all things great and small. In this sense, our consciences will move from the remoteness of an “eye in the sky” to the applications sparked by an “AI in the Wi-Fi” that helps to shape present and future behavior based on the opulent tapestry of our past, compiled every nanosecond across a thousand points of data.
With the careful guidance of our alter egos and the unvarnished reflection of ourselves in hand, perhaps humankind will learn to optimize not only efficiency but ethicality as well. As in Orwell’s archaic parable, attempting to shield oneself from this omnibenevolent gaze would be transgressive — not only illogical, but immoral. Human beings have tried for thousands, perhaps millions, of years with marginal success to project forces above us that might elicit moral behavior — deities, leviathans, solons, panopticons, prosecutors, and more. Now we will finally have the means to install the one power source that cannot be gainsaid: ourselves. And in this understanding, perhaps we may truly come to love Big Tech after all.
Randall Amster, Ph.D., is a teaching professor in justice and peace studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and is the author of books including Peace Ecology. All typos and errata in his writings are obviously the product of intransigent tech issues. He cannot be reached on Twitter @randallamster.