. Digital Gods and Monsters | London Progressive Journal
A non-partisan journal of the left.

Digital Gods and Monsters

Thu 8th Mar 2012

They seemed like great ideas at the time. Search engines capable of providing a wealth of statistics, documents, articles, perspectives and opinions through the punching in of a few keywords. Vast collections of information waiting to be discovered with the rapid fire hammering of a Q-W-E-R-T-Y keyboard and a left click here and there.

Then the social network arrived, connecting us with friends and loved ones at home and abroad; relations and old friends once lost to time and distance travelled. Facebook plugged us in to a global central square; distance and time no longer mattered. Snapshots of our lives instantly shared with anyone we pleased; your next door neighbour, your best friend, or your third cousin, twice removed, that moved to New South Wales 20 years ago. The grand scale of the Earth had been conquered by plucky young visionaries working in trendy offices scattered across Silicon Valley.

Our only limitations were access to a computer and an internet connection.

Enter the smartphone. The iPhone, Blackberry and Android have mobilised our need for information and interaction. Any moment of the day, whenever we want or need it, the internet is ours - knowledge and community, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. We can Google the location of that great new restaurant we've been hearing so much about. We can upload our adventures and, within seconds, be rewarded with instant gratification as the likes, shares, and comments grow under the image. Hardware and digital media converging to offer us a world of instant knowledge and socializing through the swipe of a finger across a touch screen.

"Google it" is now part of the global lexicon. "Tweeting" something might sound a bit cheeky, but loads of us do it every day, and it's all mostly innocent. We no longer ask "are you on Facebook?" we simply state "I'll add you on Facebook." Having an account is implicit now, and we're genuinely shocked when we meet someone who isn't interested in the digital Zeitgeist. These programs keep our fingers on the pulse of each other's experience. We post and check in. We stumble upon and retweet; we photostream, like, and spotify, everyday. We Google whenever we need and we watch whatever we like on YouTube. For all of it, we are charged nothing beyond the fees of our monthly service provider. The social network is free, there's no commodity involved.

Except for us. We are the commodity.

Upload a photo of yourself, a loved one, even your pet hamster, onto Facebook and that piece of your life now belongs to them - to be used as they see fit. Twitter sells your old, archived tweets to market research firms. If there's something you've said in 140 characters or less that a company finds useful, Twitter will profit from your archived ramblings. Every experience you have, be they mundane or epic, is for sale. Your good times, your photographs, your status updates - all fair game, and there's not much you can do to make them stop. You can "deactivate" your account, but you cannot delete it completely. Your data lingers indefinitely - a digital ghost of you.

Google has been cataloguing and storing our searches for years, giving them a progressively clearer insight into who we are and what tickles our individual fancies. Our choices on YouTube are documented, allowing them to offer personalised suggestions the next time we pop in. It all sounds quite helpful, but there's more opportunism then altruism in their motivations. Optimising our search experience also optimises our commercial value. The ads we see are targeted; manipulated by what the data says we want to buy. Algorithms build a profile of who we are, and present us as a product. Now, with changes to their privacy policy that kicked in this month, Google will take the information they have collected from our searches, YouTube visits, even the private correspondence we send out via Gmail, and stitch it all together, like on-line Frankenstein's monsters.

This is your life, data-mined, streamlined, and offered up in pursuit of maximum profit.

This is a trade off most of us were all too happy to make -- access to each other, and to limitless content and in return -- we pay with ourselves. Chunks of our lives have become profitable assets; free tools in exchange for the use of our personalities. But now that we've been delighted by them, monitored by them, and then moulded into content -- marketed by one corporation to another -- something strange is happening. All that lovely, free information is becoming filtered to fit their idea of who we are. The activities of our Facebook friends are being prioritized into a hierarchy. Lose touch with someone for a while and that person's presence fades from our news feed. Our Google searches, once informed by what we wanted, are slowly being tailored based on what our profile suggests we want. Incompatible information and unique perspectives are being pushed into the shadows.

Intentional, or by accident, the social network is twisting into a Ministry of Truth. Our world view is in danger of being dictated by the digital gods.

Most of us, however, are too busy updating our status to notice.

A version of this piece with supporting information is available at intercepttransmission.blogspot.com
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