We're ALL Winston Smith now - and our common enemy is the Big Brother State

Private firms slurp data too? Meh

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Worstall on Weds The latest thing we've all got to worry about in this brave new world of ours is that the young, not having read Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, are simply too eager to give up their information and privacy to the tech giants.

Those richer in years have been forewarned by the novel and are thus less likely to get sucked into this Faustian bargain. We greybeards are thus cleverer than the puling youth. Or summat.

The problem with this particular worry is that O'Brien and the Party wanted that information, that privacy to be stripped away, for one reason, and the tech giants want the information for quite another. The two situations simply aren't comparable. The Telegraph reports:

Young people willingly give up their privacy on Google and Facebook because they have not read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four unlike previous generations, a leading academic has warned. Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at Sheffield University, said that large corporations were hovering up private information and modern generations did not realize it was wrong. He said that older people who had grown up reading George Orwell’s 1984 about ‘Big Brother technology and ‘ authoritarianism’, were in a better position to resist the creeping erosion of privacy.

One way of putting this is that there's privacy and then there's privacy. Sure, you can track my web visits if doing so means that I get free searches of the accumulated wisdom of mankind. Or you can track who I link to on Bitchbook and in return I get the free use of the site. That's one form of privacy and its loss.

Then there's the government insisting that you don't even get the option of privacy. You cannot opt out of the data collection or of the monitoring, even if you decide that you are willing to give up some of the delights of the modern world. You will be watched, your actions will be recorded and, whenever the government feels like it, they will be corrected.

The difference here, of course, is motivation. Those guys slurping the Big Data streams couldn't give a hoot how we get our jollies, nor what our political beliefs are. They're just out to make a buck or two by getting us to use their services. Which we will do for as long as we think what we give up to gain those services is worth it.

The Nineteen Eighty Four Big Brother-type surveillance was, however, about making damn sure that we only got our jollies in the state-approved manner and that we believed what we were told to believe. And really believed it, not just paid lip service to it.

What the IngSoc* Party wanted was power: you know, that boot-stamping-in-a-human-face-forever thing.

Being monitored to make sure that you believe what you're told to is rather different from someone tracking you to make a buck. Or, as the old saying has it, you're better off being manipulated by some mercenary bastard than you are by the power-mad – or even those who are doing it for your own good.

Another way to put this is that the NSA or GCHQ monitoring everything is what we should be worrying about, not that some book-selling site knows we have a penchant for books featuring pneumatic blondes.

On the information and privacy front, virtual reality comp sci man Jaron Lanier recently vented his deep thoughts on this in the Graun:

Obviously, information is power. That means information is wealth. If we must accept yet more extreme information concentration in order to benefit from the increased safety and convenience of better transportation, then it isn't worth it. This idea that a marked loss of democracy is worth the safety or convenience has always been dangled before us, and has always been wrong.

Actually the trade-off has always been presented as “security over liberty” being the thing that isn't worth it. And there's one hell of a leap there from Google knowing where our driverless car is going to losing democracy. But the real error with Lanier's thinking is here:

That is why the software and governance of vehicle automation must remain distributed. It can be commercial as long as every individual can benefit economically. Google would have to ask you, and certainly pay you, after every trip to be able to make any use at all of the data that emerges.

To pay is to offer something of value in exchange for whatever. It does not necessarily mean handing over a roll of greenbacks, which is what Lanier means here. In this case the thing that Google is proffering in return for our information is that ride in the driverless car. If we don't think the deal is worth it then we'll walk to our destination, or hop, or hail a taxi via Uber. The ride is the thing of value that is being offered in exchange, so Google is already paying.

Common to both of these stories is the mistake that private sector information-gathering is the same as (and thus as dangerous as) mandatory state collection of the same data. They're simply not the same thing at all. The state has, within its jurisdiction, a monopoly. That's rather what a state means, in fact: and a monopoly means that one cannot opt out. Given that the state can force people to bend to its will, what we allow a state to do to us should be very different from what we might allow private actors to do.

Google takes too much information? Use DuckDuckGo. Facebook too much? MySpace is still around, isn't it? We have choices here and each of us can make our own. Unlike Nineteen Eighty-Four, the entire point of which was to detail what happens when the state won't allow us any choices at all.


*IngSoc = English Socialist, for those who haven't read Orwell's magnum opus or its thoroughly fascinating and utterly terrifying concept of Newspeak. Vulture Central's backroom gremlins also recommend Orwell's pamphlet Politics and the English Language, available in full here.

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