By Chris Jasinski
When I sit back and try to think about all the ways that modern consumer technology has entered our lives, I keep coming back to the idea of control.
Are you concerned you’re not getting enough exercise?
Count your steps with a smart watch.
Are you worried about burglars breaking in and stealing your stuff?
Think about installing a cloud-based camera in your living room.
Could your child be abducted on their way to school today?
Be responsible and equip them with a GPS tracker.
In a world that seems increasingly chaotic, we’re being offered more ways than ever to minimize risk. It’s a marketer’s dream come true: take an increasingly anxious population, gently guide them to internalize a few worst-case scenarios, and then turn around to sell them a sense of security.Read More
And the folks selling control seem to be winning– though maybe that’s not so hard to do when you’ve convinced our consumerist culture that “New is always Better” and “Growth mean Progress.” We’ve been promised a technologically-tuned, utopian future, and that appeals to people for a good reason. A world of total control– without theft, abuse, terrorism, or kidnappings– is tempting.
We’ll get the ability monitor our children, bodies, and homes, as long as Big Tech gets to make billions off the data, and the police will get license-plate-readers, facial recognition, and drones so they can keep tabs on which of us are showing up to the local protests. Welcome to the Utopia of Control.
If this future doesn’t sound so bad to you, consider one possible analogy: have you ever seen a close friend get trapped in a controlling relationship? If you have, you’ve noticed that it starts when one partner can’t process their own insecurities. Their inability to cope will give way to deeper feelings of paranoia, which they’ll try to regain control over, usually by displacing them directly onto their partner. It might start with looking through the other’s phone, or combing through their social media accounts, but it can escalate into demanding unreasonable amounts of attention (especially at the expense of other relationships), or even dictating which people are ok to hang out with.
As one partner exerts more control over the other, trust vanishes, behaviors incrementally change, seeds of anxiety germinate, and true self-expression begins to mute itself. Ironically, the moment when one achieves full control over their relationship, the relationship as we know it disappears. And while it might still be wrapped up in the language of affection, its core resembles something more akin to an interpersonal dictatorship.
I believe this mechanism slowly replicates itself in our homes and neighborhoods. And as the modern world drags us into our devices, maybe we’re actually displacing our insecurity of feeling disconnected from our immediate community onto a virtual community (though the structure of our economic system bears responsibility, too). If we feel disconnected from our community, there’s a good chance it’s because we simply don’t know the people in it– a phenomenon that’s common in regions like the Bay Area, where neighborhood demographics are shifting overnight.
And when people in a community don’t know each other, how can they trust each other?
As surveillance activists, we see case after case of law enforcement and tech corporations taking advantage of this sense of ‘otherness’ to push through more invasive technologies, whether it’s always-on microphones in our most underserved neighborhoods, or attempts to equip cameras with facial recognition. The justification they offer is to provide us with more security. The fantasy is to maintain control.
Communities will always have conflict, and maybe they’ll always have crime. But community also gives us the space for spontaneity and self-exploration, celebration and solidarity. Feeling like you’re part of a community is a part of feeling human. What happens to that community once we install cameras on every doorstep, plant microphones on telephone poles, and normalize the constant buzz of drones overhead?
Our challenge today is to honestly ask: even if we could design a world of total control, is that the world we want?
Chris Jasinski is an active member of Oakland Privacy