In my younger days I read a lot of science fiction, and a lot of
it has come true. Smart people, those crazy fiction writers.
"The Dead Past" by Isaac Asimov is one that has stuck in my
memory all these years. The story describes a device called the
chronoscope, which is a viewer for watching past events,
like a TV that tunes in to the past. Unfortunately it has limited
usefulness as a tool for viewing historical events because it only
goes back 120 years. The government does its best to suppress the
chronoscope because they quickly figured out that people would use
it as a near-real time snooping device, by tuning in a fraction of
a second in the past to watch anyone anywhere. But the plans to
make a chronoscope escape into the world. The final words of
dialogue in the story are spoken by a government agent scolding the
people who released the plans, something like "Happy goldfish bowl
to you, and may each of you fry in hell forever."
The story's assumption that the government would actually try to
do the right thing is rather quaint, especially for an all-seeing
surveillance device. But I heartily concur with the agent's parting
sentiment, because privacy protections for us ordinary,
not-uber-wealthy-normal-people are of little interest to our fine
elected officials, or our upstanding corporate citizenpersons.
An Economy of Parasites
Now we live in this shiny modern era of customer data being more
valuable than actual goods and services. There is this whole huge
new industry-- Facebook, Google, Doubleclick, Mediaplex, and
thousands more-- that exists only to snoop, to collect as much of
our personal data as possible, and to buy and sell it to each
other. It's all marketing-driven as purveyors of way too much
mediocre stuff try to find that magic exploitation button to sell
more of their junk. They think they will find it by snooping into
our lives and activities in every way they can think of.
Of course these titans of industry are well-insulated
themselves. You can't stop Google StreetView from plastering photos
of your home online, but you won't find Larry Page or Sergey Brin's
For all the advances in technology and hundreds of billions of
dollars that these businesses represent, as far as I'm concerned
they are parasites. They don't make anything. They exploit.
We all know the Golden Rule-- "the one with the gold makes the
rules". Sure, we get a few token goodies in exchange for being
bought and sold like chattel. We get Facebook, we get Gmail and
Google Docs and Google Search. We get terabytes of free
But we're getting the shaft all the same. In exchange for a few
free toys we are giving up way too much. Advertisers now exert
tremendous control over content, more than they ever did. Real
independent journalism has taken a serious beating; there are few
publications remaining of any kind with the resources to do the
kind of hard daily investigations and reporting that are necessary
parts of a healthy democracy.
Tech publishing has also taken a drubbing, with in-depth
independent product reviews and good independent reporting gone the
way of the dodo. You're more likely to see advertorial than
editorial. It's all about clicks, lead generation, and collecting
insanely instrusive quantities of our personal data.
Using Everything Against Us
Another downside in this Too Much Information (TMI) age is anything
and everything you say will be used against you. Your boss, your
insurance company, potential employers, landlords, law
enforcement... it doesn't matter if you're joking or truthful,
they're out there looking for leverage to use against you. Yeah,
thanks a lot folks, we need a little more ill-will in the world, a
little more mistrust.
"But I Don't Care, I Have Nothing to Hide"
Fine, expose yourself all you want. The problem is you're dragging
the rest of us down with you. The prevailing principle is opt-out,
which is impossible. Opt-in is the moral, responsible principle. So
it will never happen.
I wish I had some kind of magic answer, but I don't. I am not
optimistic. Money talks too loudly, much louder than silly things
like principles and respect. I think all we can do is protect
ourselves individually as much as possible, which is pretty much a
joke. How many people can get your Social Security number? Every
temp and clerk in your health insurance company and every medical
clinic you've ever visited, every one who works for a credit
reporting agency, your bank... How many people know where you went
on Web and what you did? There is no way of knowing; for sure it is
many. Happy goldfish bowl to us all!