No Life Stories: How Big Data makes our “1984”-inspired ideas about surveillance woefully inadequate

Rob Horning reviews media scholar Mark Andrejevic’s book, Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know, arguing that Big Data allows governments and big business to control behavior without ever knowing who any of us are as individuals. This relatively recent model for surveillance strains our ideas about privacy and surveillance past the breaking point.

Surveillance has become as thorough as technology permits it to be, as the legal restraints devised to limit it in earlier eras have become outmoded, irrelevant. Given that many are becoming alert to the surveillance threat through the way it’s borne by the atomizing technology of smartphones, we tend to imagine the problem is that it can single us out and expose us. Surveillance is conceived as a kind of panoptic voyeurism that selects us for unfair scrutiny and treatment, require us to adopt a superficial conformity as camouflage. It plays on our worry for our personal reputation.

But Andrejevic argues that in an era of mass surveillance, the surveillance apparatus doesn’t care about our individual story. Instead Big Data is interested in broader statistical profiles of populations. Mass surveillance controls without necessarily knowing anything that compromises any individual’s privacy. To the degree that they have access to the devices we use to mediate our relation to everyday life, companies deploy algorithms based on correlations found in large data sets to shape our opportunities—our sense of what feels possible. Undesirable outcomes need not be forbidden and policed if instead they can simply be made improbable. We don’t need to be watched and brainwashed to make them docile; we just need to be situated within social dynamics whose range of outcomes have all been modeled as safe for the status quo. It’s not: “I see what you are doing, Rob Horning, stop that.” It’s: “Rob Horning can be included in these different data sets, which means he should be offered these prices, these jobs, these insurance policies, these friends’ status updates, and he’ll likely be swayed by these facts.”

Mass data collectors don’t want “potentially incriminating information about you as an individual so much as mundane information at the scale of populations,” Horning says. Mass data collectors want to “construct a working model of society in data, so the more conforming you are, the more you need to be watched, to weight the models properly.”

By figuring out what the average, conforming person looks like, powerful institutions can better spot deviant and threatening behavior, to be neutralized (in the case of security) or marketed to (in the case of business). People going through life transitions such as death in the family, divorce, pregnancy, job loss, and relocation are particularly susceptible to advertising.

Of course social media and wearable devices like Fitbit play a big role. We voluntarily contribute to the profiles being built about us.

This form of surveillance and profiling has implications for politics, government, and even our ideas of self.

No Life Stories

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