Friday, April 05, 2013

Privacy Fencing

I don't know about you, but I find the "My Lowe's" commercials downright creepy. In this one, they know what color I've painted my living room -- and want me to think that's a good thing:

Here, they've gone into the bowels of my basement, noted, recorded, and stored what kind of air filters my furnace uses -- and act as if they deserve a cookie for keeping track of my stuff:

Lowe's isn't the only big business that makes me cringe. It's just that its commercials are so prevalent, and it's so in-your-face about invading my privacy and mining the data that is me that it seems less like a hardware store that serves me and more like a giant Borg box that wants me to be part of its collective consciousness.

And though I feel increasingly in the minority, I am not OK with this.

I fear that mine is the last generation to have any privacy whatsoever.

Accessing what's in our heads is big business. We've moved beyond deliberately sharing our personal information via social media sites. (Don't believe me? Believe the analysts who have concluded that because the under-20 crowd is eschewing Facebook, the tell-the-world-what-you're-thinking site that now wants to track your movements and know where you are at all times because you leave your phone with the app running at all times is passé.) With modern technology, the human interface is rapidly becoming superfluous.

Take, for instance, the brain-scanning headphones that save you the trouble of making your own personal play list. No -- these puppies, which feature their very own EEG sensor, will determine your mood based on your brain waves, and play an appropriate song to match. (No mention is made of what might happen should these bad boys fall into the wrong hands of someone who would then make them play Barry Manilow alternating with RATT until your EEG showed signs of psychopathy.)

We live in an age when our memories are not our own. Just ask neuroethicist S. Matthew Liao who is studying the ethical questions associated with, say, giving soldiers memory-erasing drugs which would, conceivably, eliminate PTSD. Doing so could also create a situation in which morality of any kind becomes as irrelevant to society as knowing how to cure deerskin. 

If we are capable of telling a human to do a thing, and then equally capable of erasing any knowledge of that action, what, exactly, have we become?

In a very real way, mankind may be one of the most endangered animals on the planet. Oh, sure, we're reproducing like crazy. But if the data crunchers have their way, we'll soon be relegated to nothing more than a lengthy series of numbers and preferences. Our data, not our DNA, defines us.

Right now, scientists are in the process of being able to visualize a person's dreams. See, here's the thing: my dreams are mine, dammit. They are not home movies that need to go viral and either provide entertainment or cause undue concern, based on the vagaries of my subconscious on any given night.

We teeter on the verge of Total Demystification. If we continue down this path, wonder, self-expression, and personal discovery may soon be relics from the past. Every thought we think -- from "I hate this television show" to "Yowza! I wonder what those abs feel like" will be mind-mapped, databased, and deconstructed before we've had time to react to it. In this brave, new world, will "individuality" and "privacy" become taboo?

"It's for your own good," we're told. One of the worst party lines is, "If you're not doing anything wrong, you won't care who knows about it. Only terrorists / serial killers / sex offenders / shoplifters / drug lords / paranoiacs / conspiracy theorists are worried about privacy." (This kind of statement lends itself to a brilliant leap of inductive reasoning. ::evil eye:: "Saaaayyy -- Maybe YOU're a terrorist / serial killer / etc.")

This stuff makes me shudder. Seriously. When did we become a population that embraced Big Brother? At some tipping point in recent memory, we went from being private citizens, each with his or her own thoughts, desires, and secrets, to being "privacy fences," willing to tell all to anyone who wanted to know.

I don't know about you (and frankly, I don't care what color you've painted your house), but the thought of my life being relegated to nothing more than a mass of data makes for very disturbing dreams. They're disturbing, but they're mine...

For now.


David Brown said...

An interesting phenomenon, social networks. They are of great benefit until the designer of the network decides to make a profit by our personal information, and thus coerce or manipulate us into giving away more of it in order to sell it to others (i.e.:Facebook). Not every social network is evil, and not every technology such as that which Lowe's is employing is, either. They're simply attempting to streamline a customer experience. Ultimately, if you don't want that, or think that the cost outweighs the benefits, its still perfectly possible to shop there without it.

Science fiction writers have been predicting this sort of cyber-punk evolution for some time. The memory altering technology is one of the things that frighten the most. Not difficult at all for power-mongers to have their citizens go to war against their wishes if no one remembers that they did so.

Ami Hendrickson said...

Thanks for commenting. I, too, don't believe that social networks -- even Facebook -- are inherently evil. But I do worry that we are willingly giving away our privacy without questioning the cost.

When science fiction writers write of a world where a defense / security firm creates software that can be used to track the online interactions of the general population (, I consider that a "dystopian" society. It's also current reality. It definitely makes for some unsettling dreams...