Two weeks into DITA, I have many more questions than I have answers, which is a good place to start. I’ve also realised that what I believed I was coming onto this Masters to learn and write about is already changing in shape and form. I had, for instance, only ever considered the issues of information ethics, big data, privacy and surveillance capitalism, from an activist point of view – but it is becoming rapidly clear to me that you cannot break the rules until you know the rules. This is where DITA excites me – the chance to learn how and why we are at the stage we are at in society, what has contributed to it, and how we can change it. We have little to no control over what happens to our data: how our patterns, thinking and consumer choices are dictated by which boxes we do or do not tick online; what we are shown and how we consume based on what we have looked at and consumed before; which privacy statements we choose to agree to without reading; the frightening degree to which big data lacks transparency; the fact that nobody is actually in charge of any of it therefore there is no accountability whatsoever; which groups within our communities are excluded from an increasingly ‘smart’ society; and what all of this means for the ways in which we use information and data to uphold – or undermine – democracy.
I am interested in the ways in which algorithms on social networking sites contribute to polarised thinking and ‘information bubbles’, which we discussed in week 1 in class, and how targeted advertising based on a users profile can sway political opinion and, in a very real and concrete sense, change voting habits and reinforce held beliefs with information that has been designed to support an opinion, rather than ‘true’ information. David Beer discusses this in his piece Data and Political Change, in which he asserts that due to information overload, 21st century societies need information in a more immediate, bitesized manner , mostly because there is so much of it that it would be impossible to access and absorb it all. And the social media algorithms know this, as do the architects of the targeted advertising that exploit these algorithms without us even knowing about it.
I am also keen to learn more about the philosophy of truth in a digital world. What is ‘true’ information – who decides it, how do we reference information to cite its sources, and how do we make more sources of ‘truth’ available to the average layman who does not have access to, or the desire to plough through, journals and think pieces that are written for academics – how do we make the world of big data more accountable and transparent, more accessible to everyone – not just those who write about these issues?
Smart cities are a concern to me for many reasons, as one of my areas of interest is marginalised and disaffected communities. What happens to these groups in a society where they do not have access to the money, resources and networks needed in order to plug into and access the virtual world – in order to lead and manage their lives in accordance with big data principles – and what if we remove the ability for them to engage in society based purely on what they can and cannot afford and access? Homeless and poorer populations in particular are already suffering, as we see from the Universal Credit rollout across Britain, and the affect this is having on individuals and families who do not have the skills or technology required to administer their online account – the only way of submitting and maintaining a Universal Credit claim. Additionally, if a person has no fixed address, how can they still access the library membership needed in order to use the computers within – and that’s if they are even technologically literate? I see a furthering of the divide between mainstream society and these groups if we do not tackle these issues with great urgency.
It has always been my understanding that the rise of big data is a result of capitalism – how to track what we do, when we do it, why we do it, and what/where we need to spend in order to be able to do it – with the ultimate question being: how can we make them buy more of it? Part of my professional background is in market research firms, and I have spent a regrettably large amount of time taking minutes at meetings where twelve or more executives around a table – all on six figure salaries – discuss how to make people buy more of a particular product regardless of whether they actually need it or not. How to get into their thinking, their fears, their insecurities. So to read an argument by Evgeny Morozov on how big data has its origins in the 1970’s socialist leadership in Chile astounded me – is it possible that big data originated from a sincere desire to help, rather than control, the people?
Part of my professional background was also in charities working on issues of freedom of speech and information in closed societies – therefore, this is another of my areas of interest. China has been a long discussed and observed closed society with regards to internet access and surveillance of its population, with Russia soon following suit if they are able to disconnect from the global internet in the way that they allegedly desire to, as discussed and read about in week 2 and this article by Charlotte Jee in the MIT Technology Review.
I have a passion for environmental justice too, which for me is caught up inextricably in questions of democracy, autonomy, and an ecologically sustainable future for humans on earth . It is all very well having technology that can do everything for us, and thirty five devices each, but unless we still have an earth on which to use all these gadgets it is all in vain. The materials we use to make these devices is mined from the earth, usually in countries that cannot afford to fight the processes and powers that decimate their natural environment, which furthers colonialism and consumes energy at an alarming rate. The environmental costs of running server banks is also worrying, as outlined by Shannon Mattern in her piece Extract and Preserve, on LibraryStack.
I wrote this blog with some anxiety, thinking I must have already had some huge, world-changing insight to reveal in order to justify publishing my thoughts on this (or any) subject – but I realise now that it is absolutely fine to write about my questions instead. What is more important, is that I find DITA exciting and thought provoking, and my magic whiteboard wall mindmap is already covered in thought trails and connections. That is good enough for now. Anyway, if I already knew all the answers, that would be ten grand unwisely spent.
This was DITA blogging exercise no. 1, reflecting on sessions 1 & 2.