Why we must worry about our online trail
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