Freedom has long been considered the most essential human right until the rise of a new climate of insecurity pushed individuals to retreat into their alleged safe communities, protected by hi-tech security systems, making them prisoners of their own prejudice. This self-imposed limited freedom is regarded, by some, as preferable to the potential risks of a truly open society. The control of society is as old as government itself, but modern technology combined with the power of predictive algorithms, has provided states, along with multinational corporations, with more and more invidious methods of citizens’ control.
Predicting human behaviour with pinpoint accuracy has almost become reality as the original intent of the founders of a well-known Internet search engine to ‘organise world information and make it accessible and useful’ has gradually turned into an almost infinite source of personal data convertible into behavioural models with limitless economic potential. In 2016, the reality game “Pokémon Go” was the first to offer ‘sponsored spaces’, side by side, with the actual game territory. Today, the slightest move in our daily electronic life is instantly intercepted by digital platforms suddenly disposing of precious information about everyone of us.
For Harvard Professor, Shoshana Zuboff, ‘surveillance capitalism’ is the latest stage of what she calls a “rogue mutation of capitalism” which endangers the very future of democracy by substituting digital information for face to face deliberation. The “Big Other”, title of her acclaimed paper published in 2016, exposes the threat to human autonomy posed by a digital revolution and its ultimate goal to ‘automate us’. The absence of overall global regulation can only encourage the non-stop accumulation of data knowledge.
Our seemingly inevitable dependence upon our mobile phones and computers makes us, willy-nilly, the guinea-pigs or ‘human natural resources’ which can be tapped into, without our consent. Can personal autonomy and self-determination survive when we enter uncertain times where, as Zuboff comments, ‘they know more about us than we know about ourselves or than we know about them.”? The ‘ownership’ of personal data, claimed by many as an inalienable right of the digital age, may prove an empty concept when any ‘surplus’ trace left by us through our day to day communications, is eventually gleaned to become exploited for economic or political ends.