The Circle, a film adaptation of the best-selling novel by David Eggers about a mega-Silicon Valley company that has sinister plans to control the world, opened recently to tepid reviews and unimpressive box office. That shouldn’t obscure the fact that the issues it attempts to address—and which the novel brilliantly took on—are ones that need to be dealt with, urgently.
To wit, what happens as our lives more and more are lived digitally? What are the implications for rights, freedoms, and privacy when the desiderata of our digital incarnations are channeled through only handful of massive private companies who want to use our data not just to reduce the frictions of everyday life but to augment their own bottom lines? And what happens when technology moves towards ever-more automated and augmented reality when more of our key interactions take place in a digital realm that exists only on the servers that those companies control?
Instead, our public discussion is dominated by parsing the current presidency’s first 100 days, a marker without meaning, anchored to little more than the ease of digesting the number. The preponderance of attention goes to Washington these days, when what goes on in Washington is only one variable designing the future. While the fate of the Trump administration certainly matters, it may shape the world much less decisively in the long-term than the tectonic changes rapidly altering the digital landscape.
As the media attention has veered from whether Congress and the White House would manage to repeal and replace Obamacare (spoiler: they did not) to grading Trump’s 100 days, three things happened that received considerably less play and will have considerably more impact. At the end of March, both the Senate and the House voted to roll back broadband privacy regulations that had been passed by the Federal Communications Commission in 2016. Those would have required internet service providers to to seek customers’ explicit permission before selling or sharing their browsing history.
Then a few weeks later, Marc Zuckerberg took to the stage of a developer’s conference to tout a Facebook vision of 24/7 augmented reality with sensors, camera, and chips embedded in clothing, everyday objects, and eventually the human body – with Facebook the central processing station for those terabytes upon terabytes of data and the central transaction platform for our commercial lives lived digitally. And finally, last week, the newly appointed head of the FCC announced his intention to revisit, revise, and eliminate the rules of net neutrality that treat internet service providers as utilities and constrain them from charging different prices for speedy data.
Freedom to Control
These disparate developments share no causal link. But they can and should be correlated to form the bare but troubling outlines of a future more like The Circle than not. The utopian view of the Valley is that vast streams of data harnessed by near-infinite processing power will empower us all to lead fully lived, full individual lives. It is a potent and intoxicating hope, and of course, the short history of digital existence so far would suggest that yes, more people are starting to carve out bespoke professional and personal paths thanks to the grace of the digital and data tools of today. Different modes of work, easier access to social and political communities of interest, less friction obtaining needed goods and services at lower costs, all that is evident.
No one should, however, ignore the potential dark side of these goodies. The libertarian creed of the Valley elite says that no good can come from government attempts to restrict how data flows and how it can be used. Government attempts at regulation have rarely been more than ham-fisted. The fact, however, that many regulations impede rather than facilitate desirably social and economic outcomes does not mean that all regulations do. A world where data and experiences are concentrated in a handful of companies with what will soon be trillion dollar capitalizations risks being one where freedom gives way to control.
It’s not as though answers here are easy and simple. Aggregating and then using data is a non-negotiable need for both companies and individuals in a data-rich world. How that data is controlled and by whom and for what purposes and what cost are only now being hashed out. The challenge is that large, for-profit corporations, infused with utopian ideals or not, have interests that do not necessarily parallel individual needs for freedom and some control. Nor do those companies honor, or need to, the wildly different economic capacity of individuals to secure or obtain the rights to their digital lives—lives that will be spinning off exponential more data, and more intimate data, in the AR world to come. The rules around net neutrality may have been clunky but they did attempt to enshrine the notion that access to the internet in a digital age must be understood as a right and not a privilege.
How to balance these competing needs and demands is one of the great conundrums of our time, akin to earlier and still on-going debates about free speech and its limits. How much control individuals have over their personal data will shape freedoms in the decades ahead as intimately as control over home and hearth and bodies had in previous eras. How those individual rights are balanced with collective and corporate needs will takes years of careful thought to delineate.
Faced with these questions, grading a president’s 100 days is about as important as the next episode of the Kardashians, and apparently equally diverting. In a hypothetical world where attention was parceled based on actual impact, the ins and outs of Trumplandia would rank well below the Valley’s plans for the next stage of data-enhanced lives. The White House and congressional soap operas would be also-ran melodramas next to the pressing questions of who owns your personal data and what can companies that store and compile that data do with it. We don’t live in such a world, but it would behoove us to try.