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adults. Or, having thought about it, maybe we actually
do want to buy the T-shirt because we hope it might
support the work of a child who would otherwise be
forced into prostitution. What is the right thing to do
here? We don’t know—so we do some research. Such
scrutiny can’t apply to everything we buy, or we’d never
leave the store. But exchanges of information—the
oxygen of democratic life—should fall into the category
of “Apply more thought, not less.” It’s not something to
be delegated to an “electronic butler”—not if we don’t
want to cleanse our life of its political dimension.
Sabotage the system.
Provoke more questions.
We should also be troubled by the suggestion that we
can reduce the privacy problem to the legal dimen-
sion. The question we’ve been asking for the last two
decades—How can we make sure that we have more
control over our personal information?—cannot be the
only question to ask. Unless we learn and continuously
relearn how automated information processing pro-
motes and impedes democratic life, an answer to this
question might prove worthless, especially if the demo-
cratic regime needed to implement whatever answer
we come up with unravels in the meantime.
Intellectually, at least, it’s clear what needs to be
done: we must confront the question not only in the
economic and legal dimensions but also in a politi-
cal one, linking the future of privacy with the future
of democracy in a way that refuses to reduce privacy
either to markets or to laws. What does this philo-
sophical insight mean in practice?
First, we must politicize the debate about pri-
vacy and information sharing. Articulating the exis-
tence—and the profound political consequences—of
the invisible barbed wire would be a good start. We
must scrutinize data-intensive problem solving and
expose its occasionally antidemocratic character.
At times we should accept more risk, imperfection,
improvisation, and inefficiency in the name of keep-
ing the democratic spirit alive.
Second, we must learn how to sabotage the sys-
tem—perhaps by refusing to self-track at all. If refus-
ing to record our calorie intake or our whereabouts
is the only way to get policy makers to address the
structural causes of problems like obesity or climate
change—and not just tinker with their symptoms
through nudging—information boycotts might be jus-
tifiable. Refusing to make money off your own data
might be as political an act as refusing to drive a car
or eat meat. Privacy can then reëmerge as a political
instrument for keeping the spirit of democracy alive:
we want private spaces because we still believe in our
ability to reflect on what ails the world and find a way
to fix it, and we’d rather not surrender this capacity to
algorithms and feedback loops.
Third, we need more provocative digital services.
It’s not enough for a website to prompt us to decide
who should see our data. Instead it should reawaken
our own imaginations. Designed right, sites would
not nudge citizens to either guard or share their pri-
vate information but would reveal the hidden politi-
cal dimensions to various acts of information sharing.
We don’t want an electronic butler—we want an
electronic provocateur. Instead of yet another app
that could tell us how much money we can save by
monitoring our exercise routine, we need an app that
can tell us how many people are likely to lose health
insurance if the insurance industry has as much data
as the NSA, most of it contributed by consumers like
us. Eventually we might discern such dimensions on
our own, without any technological prompts.
Finally, we have to abandon fixed preconceptions
about how our digital services work and intercon-
nect. Otherwise, we’ ll fall victim to the same logic
that has constrained the imagination of so many well-
meaning privacy advocates who think that defend-
ing the “right to privacy”—not fighting to preserve
democracy—is what should drive public policy. While
many Internet activists would surely argue other-
wise, what happens to the Internet is of only second-
ary importance. Just as with privacy, it’s the fate of
democracy itself that should be our primary goal.
After all, back in 1967 Paul Baran was lucky
enough not to know what the Internet would
become. That didn’t stop him from seeing the ben-
efits of utility computing and its dangers. Abandon
the idea that the Internet fell from grace over the last
decade. Liberating ourselves from that misreading
of history could help us address the antidemocratic
threats of the digital future.
Evgeny Morozov is the author of The Net Delusion: The
Dark Side of Internet Freedom and To Save Everything,
Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism.
10/9/13 5:35 PM
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