The Name of the Game
So, I’ve had a bit of a change of heart from last week. It’s come to my attention that I may have been far too ambivalent about my feelings toward online data tracking. More, I believe I let the internet ideals I hold in high regard cloud my judgement of the realities that currently rule the digital landscape.
When confronted with the realities of third-party tracking servers and learning algorithms, it is almost impossible to believe how unconscionably and irresponsibly online sites and Big Business corporations are allowed to operate in the digital sphere. It’s disturbing just how much information about me is not only readily accessible but profitable–big time. (I voiced some of my concerns in regards to Robert Heaton’s post on the ins-n-outs of online tracking here and here.) What concerns me most is the lack of privacy and the lack of consent. These sites are making stupid money selling my information to the highest bidder. As Zeynep Tufekci says in her TED Talk, we are not consumers in this financial equation. We are products. Hot products (emphasis mine).
And, I’m aware it is because of this current system of practice that the internet and most social media sites are freely available to the public but does that access offset the cost? Is the exchange from human to commodity, soluble as it may be, fair?
I credit my initial ambivalence toward online data tracking/mining to my prior perception that I wasn’t really sharing all that much personal information on the web. And, what I was sharing, was non-consequential at best. Who cares that I follow a poetry page on FB, a pro-legalization page, or that I retweet sappy quotes, right? A lot of people.
Let’s take a look at that Twitter data and at just how easy it is to compile and create a profile of me from:
With an activity log like this one, corporations could time what ads would be most effective not just to the day but down to the minute. And, they would be able to find out what ads I as a consumer would be most receptive to through data like this:
From this data set, anyone who wanted to could easily identify what news I follow through hashtag usage and what my relevant interests are through who I retweet as well as what my affiliations are outside of Twitter through what sites link back to me. All of this data can be compiled and associations can be made from it and cookies can follow up on its trends so that there is always an advertisement designed particularly with me in mind, no matter where my internet journeys take me.
The world wide web ain’t so much a democracy anymore, is it?
What’s almost more troubling than the idea that my digital self has zero to zilch autonomy or agency is that this same information can be used to affect the quality of my life outside of the internet. Institutions have invested heavily in this data and can use it to withhold certain services IRL. This is explained in episodes 2 & 3 of Do Not Track, a documentary series that explores online data tracking.
For instance, in episode 3, you are provided the option to connect your FB account to a risk assessment site (Illuminis) created, as you discover, by the creators of Do Not Track to illustrate how certain information could be collected digitally and could be used to affect your life and opportunities outside the internet.
The information it’s able to gather is mildly concerning, to say the least:
Not only is Illuminis able to show what pages I liked on FB, it is able to establish a personality profile from those pages I like as well as from other info from my FB profile.
Which is all fun and games until you see how this information is applied to real world situations. Because of something as simple as liking a post in support of decriminalizing cannabis or following a page that shares posts about traveling to exotic places
or being female apparently, things so seemingly minuscule in the grand scheme of the internet, I could turn myself into a poor investment to some interested parties.
This is problematic–especially when you see how many daily devices and platforms you use routinely make use of tracking software such as cookies:
And what is perhaps most troubling and most problematic about all of this is that there is very little you and I can do to improve this situation. Again, as Tufekci reiterates in her TED Talk, it is the system that has been put in place that needs to fundamentally change. More, it is the financial structures that govern that system that need changing and a reorganization of values. Unfortunately, those are not tasks that can be very well accomplished on an individual level.
At least, not unless the rules of play change.
In our studio visit with Brett Gaylor, the director of Do Not Track, discussion revolved around what measures can be enacted to combat this online data tracking free-for-all
pay to play suck it losers. More, we discussed how can anyone achieve any semblance of privacy in such a monitored environment and, while maintaining some kind of separation, be able to still participate in the digital sphere. Gaylor says, “Privacy is what allows us to be authentic people” after all. I would further argue that privacy and anonymity allow for activism and advocacy as well and when using a platform that has the capacity and capability to spread awareness that can facilitate necessary action, it is more than important certain protections be in place.
What our discussion ultimately seemed to come down to is consent.
Most tracking services and cookies rely heavily on implicit consent rather than an explicitly provided one, especially in North America. In episode 2 of Do Not Track(?), it is shown that European countries require websites disclose to users whether or not cookies are being used to track data. Even though the only option to being given that info is “OK”
or leave the site at least it’s an attempt to inform consumers. That’s more than we can say here.
It may be a small gesture but there is something powerful about returning responsibility, agency, and accountability, no matter the amount, to the entities that shouldn’t have had it stolen from them in the first place. It’s representative of freedom–that of choice and of
digital self-determination, choosing who can use our data and for what purpose. More, the gesture is informing. While many people may be aware that they are being monitored through their devices and their social media, the extent to which is probably less clear. (As evidenced by my own beliefs and those of my classmates here. There seems to be a distinct disconnect between our perception of the surveillance and its reality, something Tiff(?) I believe touches upon. Also, questions about the “necessary evil” of tracking arise as well by Hailey–I mean, disconnecting from the internet now essentially means disconnecting from the world; becoming less relevant and less informed. To leave or not to leave is not an easy problem to resolve.)
For me, what it really comes down to though is finding a way to restructure the system to value the ethical more than the financial. Tufekci ends her TED Talk saying, “We need a digital economy where our data and our attention is not for sale to the highest bidding authoritarian or demagogue.”
Side note: She kicks ass and I’d love to meet her IRL.
This shift has to be non-negotiable, though. There has to be not just regulation of but enforcement of ethical internet practices in some way. To me, this means there must be an incentive–the easiest kind of enforcement
but also the most expensive $$$$.
As stated in Gaylor’s Do Not Track, most of these sites make their prime revenue from ads and the amount many of us would be willing to pay out of pocket to use these services per month pales in comparison to what these sites can make through selling our data. With the state of net neutrality itself, I’m honestly not sure how easy it would be to accomplish some kind of endowment or fund for the internet to sway platforms using it away from the allure of data tracking~ There’s a political side to all of this as well, of course.
What kind of world do we live in that our right to privacy has become politicized….
I’m not proposing a step-by-step plan here for how to go about fixing the internet but I think there are conditions that must be met or else the internet will continue to remain a lose-lose situation for consumer privacy.
Keeping the Game Going
When it comes to data tracking, that latter half–tracking–seems to steal most of the glory. But that data part is, arguably, the most important component here. Without the data, there’s nothing to track after all. And how are these sites accumulating data, you may ask? By keeping us on their sites for as long as possible, of course. And how do they do that? By providing lots of shiny buttons to click and sensational videos to watch and hot music to listen to, of course. And how do they choose those things? By analyzing consumer data, of course. Tracking trends. Tracking us. Full circle, huh?
That said, I disagree almost philosophically with articles that forward this idea that the increasing use of technology is making us stupider as a whole.
Quite frankly I find the notion insulting, uninformed, and usually ageist. It has been my experience that most articles of this nature are pushing their own narrative or agenda without adequately considering the many beneficial applications of the technology and weighing them against the cons. They want to focus on the very worst aspects of social media and apply those findings to all new digital media.
And, of course, they blame the consumers wholeheartedly.
There isn’t one mention of the corporate entities or the learning algorithms that are largely responsible if not entirely so for how these social media sites are designed. In my humble opinion, the lack of ethical or conscientious advertising paired with the unregulated data tracking is far more egregious and should be of far more concern to our society than whether or not some people prefer technological amusements to someone’s IRL company. More, it reveals a distinct bias and a pronounced agenda that I have simply no interest in entertaining. (If you want to hear me get super salty about it, I highly suggest you check out this thread~)
An aspect of this problem I am interested in entertaining relates back to the issue of privacy online and how that affects authentic expression overall. I wonder to what extent all of this monitoring, this surveillance, has affected our behavior IRL. The recent uptick in content being posted to social media platforms that I believe wouldn’t have been uploaded a decade ago (i.e. the Logan Paul Suicide Forest video to Youtibe, or the brutal fights shared via FB live, that livestream posted to Instagram of a woman getting into a car accident and killing her sister, etc.) leads me to believe that we may all be becoming more performative–because we believe we are always being watched. In that sense, everything about ourselves becomes content for public consumption. We are products. It’s all some reality show. A performance art piece–neo-Dadaist style.
Removing privacy as a valuable concept from the social consciousness is a pretty good way to eliminate the issue of privacy from the data tracking discussion entirely
again, in my humble opinion~.
It makes me wonder about authenticity. If privacy is what allows us to be authentic people, as Gaylor said, what is authentic expression in a world without a concept of privacy? How does living without a sense of a private self affect your self image? Because digital selves are so public, does that mean that they can never be private?
I don’t know. I really don’t.
End Game…Plot Twist???
Ultimately, the issue of online data tracking leaves me dissatisfied–a little abjectly horrified too, tbh. (I’m not sure if that’s much better or far worse than feeling conflicted.)
I fundamentally disagree with it and have serious reservations with the system’s current business practices and ethics but I also understand that the internet can’t very well run without the current infrastructure. I mean, it’s entirely doable just not practical at this moment in time. I wish there was more transparency, though, and accountability. Right now, the onus is on consumers who are really commodities and so don’t even have the power that would be afforded to them if they were consumers. Simply, we’re not properly informed about what’s going on behind our screens and so we can’t consent.
It’s like we’re playing a game that’s been designed to beat us.
We’re being exploited for all we’re worth and most of us are gladly participating in our own exploitation.
Which is unfortunate because the internet really has the capacity to be this place where communities of individuals can gather and create, innovate, better themselves and the world at large. Just look at our little community here:
It’s hard to entirely dismiss the internet when it’s responsible for the creation of something like this. It’s the current system that has made our community possible. At the same time, the very system and algorithms that make our community possible are responsible for the creation of a lot of really toxic and problematic digital communities, ones that perpetuate falsehoods and often dangerous narratives and that profit off of it. Again, there’s just an issue of consent but of oversight, culpability, and many other serious problems that have, unfortunately, in many instances, been politicized. This is another aspect of internet use I would categorize as of greater importance than whether or not we’re addicted to social media. (Though, I’ll grant this ties into whether or not the internet is making us stupider. More uniformed, really.) Its difficult to reconcile all of these many sides of the internet. Seems easier to let yourself get lost in the stream.
I’m not sure where any of this leaves us
other than in need of a drink but I’d love to hear your thoughts~
— Kelli (@helterskelliter) January 28, 2018
My fave DDA from the week~ I want you to know I’m aesthetically opposed to embedding tweets, though >.> much prefer linking but whatev, I’ll play by the “rules”
A Pesky Faerie (wonder where following her takes you….)
*I’ve recommended this video a couple of times throughout my #netnarr travels but I think, especially in light of both our current class discussions and the current state of political affairs in our country, it is incredibly relevant. It’s from an educational channel and it’s all about how to navigate this post-truth error where such things as “alternative facts” exist. More, it’s an exploration of the relationship between social media, consumerism, and factual truth. Highly recommend checking it out~
*A documentary that I’ve watched recently and would recommend is Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. It’s different from Do Not Track but it is still interested in bringing an underlying truth to the surface. (Plus, it’s an Oscar nominee. (Double plus, it’s free if you have Amazon Prime))~
*This week’s musical artist of choice I listened to while hitting the grind was blackbear, if you want to check him out~
Till next time~