Why we must worry about our on­line trail

Financial Chronicle - - EDIT, OPED, THE WORKS -

THE in­ter­net, led by the tech giants Ama­zon, Face­book and Google, has been great at con­nect­ing us with prod­ucts. It has been less good, how­ever, at con­nect­ing us as a polity. It’s time we started imag­in­ing what an in­ter­net op­ti­mized for the cit­i­zen would look like.

I’m a plus-sized woman, and when I was preg­nant with my first son in 1999, find­ing ma­ter­nity clothes was a pain. The ma­ter­nity shops didn’t have my size, and the plus-size shops didn’t sell ma­ter­nity clothes. By the time I was preg­nant with my third son in 2008, the in­ter­net of­fered all I needed.

We’ve made a trade. In ex­change for com­mer­cial sur­veil­lance and data col­lec­tion, we have the world’s best at-home mall. And just as my friends and I used to so­cialise at the mall when we were teenagers, nowa­days we so­cialise on­line in com­mer­cial spa­ces like Face­book and Twit­ter. The stores around us, in­formed by our dig­i­tal pro­files, mag­i­cally trans­form to meet our needs and de­sires. We have the tailored in­ter­net ex­pe­ri­ence. This happy story has ex­cep­tions. Preda­tory in­dus­tries use the same pro­fil­ing tech­nol­ogy to lo­cate folks des­per­ately in need of money or vul­ner­a­ble to gam­bling pitches and sell them things they shouldn’t buy. But in large part, we’re in con­sumer nir­vana.

The dark side of this revo­lu­tion is that data col­lected for one use can be re­pur­posed for an­other. Our mar­ket­ing si­los are in­for­ma­tion si­los, too. Thanks to our tailored ex­pe­ri­ences, we barely share a com­mon re­al­ity with peo­ple who dis­agree with us. They see dif­fer­ent prod­ucts, dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal news, even dif­fer­ent facts. It crept up on us slowly, while we were play­ing with our new toys. But now the in­ter­net giants have enor­mous power. Ex­trap­o­late 50 years into the fu­ture, when the big data of to­day will look puny and the al­go­rithms in­ac­cu­rate and mod­est. What kind of in­for­ma­tion econ­omy will sup­port a healthy democ­racy?

— Cathy O’Neil/Bloomberg

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