Author : Daniel Erlacher
This article has been published by Trax.
Brave new world? We experience data-hungry smartphones, self-driving cars, drones and robots, fitness apps and smart TVs – permanently connected to the Internet. Social media applications create filter bubbles fostering further social polarization and thus undermine the fundamentals of democracy. The digital world we all inhabit is dominated by powerful corporations and their algorithms, but how often are we aware of it? To what degree are we already being remote controlled?
When insurances calculate their fees according to the vital data of their customers, this impacts their lifestyle. Governments and intelligence agencies use similar methods, claiming to increase our security. Stock market prices change by the minute and its not humans calculating them anymore. It’s algorithms who decide where to invest – with unforeseeable consequences. In medicine humans are reduced to the data of their vital signs.
The question about total surveillance and control slowly arrived in the mainstream discourse (thanks, Edward Snowden!) and has sparkled debates about power relations, decentralization and self empowerment. But beyond these debates, the digitalization of the world bears many more fundamental and ethical questions which basically affect everyone. It’s about the future of humanity and the future of our planet.
Which decisions should we as a society or even as humanity at large delegate to algorithms? Which areas of our lives do we want to reduce to measurements, quantifications and calculations? Which areas should we consciously keep apart from such developments? And how and by whom can such decisions be made? Can humanity even limit the application of its technologies, as Ivan Illich once suggested? Or is this an unstoppable momentum which we have to adapt to? Will we loose the autonomy promised by the age of enlightenment in this digital age? And who stands to profit from it?
How big is Big Data?
Currently we produce 2.5 Exabytes (2,5 billion Gigabytes) of new information on a daily basis, and that number will increase to 44 Zettabytes (44 billion Terabytes) in the next three to four years. That is a lot of information, and it’s growing faster and faster. “Data is the oil of the 21st century”, some say. Large corporate information silos accumulate data like oil companies extract fossil fuels. Unlike with oil, there wont be a “peak data” moment. Much of this data is personal. People share it in exchange for “free” services like social networking, search engines, video platforms and email services. The trust in large corporations is mainly expressed by consenting to terms of services, which are rarely even read, much less understood.
And it’s a hackers paradise: large amounts of data in centralized servers; outdated software which can be easily exploited; more and more devices and infrastructure is connected to the Internet with “always on” as a fatal paradigm.
Software is cracked, systems are hacked, data is leaking: not just to Wikileaks, but to a myriad of players, from small hacker groups to large intelligence services. No system connected to the Internet is safe, not even governments, infrastructure or companies servicing the surveillance industrial complex. Is it possible to escape this enormous accumulation of personal data? Is encryption on a large scale a way to protect the human right to privacy? Or should we disconnect from the status quo, literally?
Daniel Erlacher is one of the founders of the Elevate Festival in Graz. He coordinates the discourse/documentary film team of the festival.