Mark Ireland writes: Our dependence on technology has been highlighted by the lockdown, as many congregations have discovered the benefits of Zoom, YouTube and Facebook. However, two events in the news recently have shown the digital revolution has dangers as well as benefits, in a world where knowledge is power.
In the UK the exams fiasco has shown the danger of making life-changing decisions about people on the basis of computer algorithms. Algorithms, which have the aura of impartiality, will always be unfair for some since they are based on probabilities. They also tend to have biases embedded within them because of the limited world-views of those (predominantly white males) who develop them. Distortions also creep in when the data is itself flawed, having been inputted by poorly paid, isolated workers in the gig economy, as Simon Cross highlighted (Church Times Comment, 7 August).
In the USA a Congressional Committee has interviewed the CEOs of the four big tech companies (Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook) and concluded that too much power has been concentrated into the hands of too few, and regulation is needed. The chair commented that Google has evolved from being a turnstile giving access to the internet into a walled garden designed to keep competitors out, either putting competitors out of business or taking them over.
Over the last few weeks I have been reading Shoshana Zuboff’s timely and prophetic book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books, 2019), in which she shows how Google and Facebook use their knowledge about the most intimate details of our lives gleaned from our search histories on the internet, from reading all our emails, from the things we ‘like’ on Facebook and the fitbits and healthapps we use, not only to predict our behaviour and sell advertising individually targeted to us, but also to sell that information to those who mould and change our beliefs and our behaviour.
This financial model has brought huge profits but incentivises companies to increase the knowledge they have about us, by whatever means. The concepts of personalisation and the connected home, where machines anticipate our every need before we realise it, extends surveillance into ever more intimate spaces, as we let computers record and screen our conversations via gadgets like Alexa and Echo.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 transformed the attitude of big government to the big tech companies. Having previously attempted to regulate them in the name of privacy, suddenly the US government and others realised that the best way to prevent future global terror attacks was to harness the tech companies’ knowledge, monitoring the world’s population on a much more sustained and intrusive level, to detect behaviour and personality types before a crime was ever committed.