For Darryl McGuire deleting digital information turned out to be no mean feat. A recent ICAC inquiry heard the former Member for Wagga Wagga rolled a tractor over his iPad and iPhones when notified of the inquiry.
Somewhat predictably, Darryl’s actions fuelled a number of twitter jokes and memes of the yet another country MP variety.
Regional Australians have little to thank Darryl for. 2.5 million Australians remain offline. Poor Australians, Indigenous Australians and those living in regional areas are more likely to experience digital exclusion than their richer, educated, urbanised cousins. The problem is not simply technical. Confidence, education and attitudes towards technology widen the gap.
This does matter. Digital exclusion equals social exclusion. Images which emphasise the technical competence of regional Australians are important. COVID has shut down schools, workplaces and government services across Australia making Internet access an essential service. The recent bushfire crisis made social media the go to tool for connecting communities and spreading crisis communications.
Edward Snowden once described deletion of digital information as a ruse, a figment, a public fiction, a not-quite-noble lie that computing tells you to reassure you and give you comfort. He added that computers are not designed to correct mistakes but to hide them from those parties who do not know where to look.
The image of Darryl’s tractor is a powerful furphy. One designed to deflect our attention away from digital permanency. For Darryl and his ex-lover, Gladys Berejiklian, an act of deletion may work to terminate the conversation. It seems cloud computing, digital duplication, back-up tapes and business continuity plans are no impediment to an errant tractor, a document shredder and an end-user delete button. For the rest of us the conversation continues.
Indigenous Australians, regional Australians and those of us who live in cities are using technology to extend offline culture and kinship and build communities which have meaning to us. It is this innovation which will ultimately close the digital divide. The image of Darryl cheerfully rolling his tractor over his mobile devices to destroy evidence does not represent who we are today. The digital deletion excuse is not only implausible, it is damaging.
The Netflix docudrama “The Social Dilemma” is worth a watch. Centred around interviews with former executives of social media companies, including Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Google, it has been criticised for using a fictional all-American family and personified algorithm to dramatize its central narrative.
Despite criticism, it has been well-received, staying in Netflix’s top 10 most viewed programs in Australia for over a month. It has spawned both a movement and a website designed to help us reassess our relationship with social media.
Netflix has picked a winning formula. Docudramas are powerful vehicles for exploring social issues and creating behavioural change in others. The mix of fact and fiction creates a heady cocktail. The interviews with those “who were there” provide factual clout. The fictional scenes cement our emotional connection with what is being portrayed – after all, that could be us.
Our love affair with social media is portrayed as an unhealthy obsession. Images of invisible puppeteers pulling strings and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” portray us as unwitting victims of the attention economy. The Silicon Valley interviewees emphasise a fundamentally unethical business model based on predicting and manipulating human behaviour.
If a technopanic is a moral panic over contemporary technology, this docudrama is the cultural artefact of our current technopanic nightmare. The positive aspects of social media are barely touched on, the communities and relationships it creates and sustains, its role during disasters such as the Australian bushfires, its ability to create social change such as the MeToo Movement and Black Lives Matter. The final scenes showing the arrest of the fictional teenagers for participating in a social protest bring us to the end of the slippery slope. Their choice to protest is not real. It is merely a social media manipulation.
“The Social Dilemma” opens up important questions for debate. Questions about how social media impacts our mental health, of its role in the spread of disinformation and the facilitation of hate speech. For this reason, it is worth watching. Yet it never really manages to resolve the central question. Does technology control us or do we control it?
George Orwell once wrote that nothing readable can be written unless one struggles to efface one’s personality. Think about this statement long enough and you will start to think of it as a mirage.
We live in a digital world which subverts any attempt to efface our personality. Blogs and social media tools give expression to our changing personality and document our relationships with others over time. They document what we give as well as what we give off in our search for identity, our hopes, our anxieties and the ways in which we interact with the world around us.
We all know one of those bloggers who break through the narrative set by the media in their profession, who have the courage to blog on their work. How they bring creativity and innovation to their profession. I want to be one of those bloggers.
I think of the Robodebt Program and how those who worked on it were hunted down online and I feel a bit sick. The online world is bleeding into our work life, a space some of us use to carve out a career and others, simply to make ends meet. I’m not sure I want to be judged as the same person whether at work or at home, and I know I don’t want to suffer the online consequences.
Orwell believed that a writer’s subject matter is formed by the times in which they live and that the tumultuous, evolutionary times in which he lived had formed his writing and political fight against totalitarianism. I think of Orwell and call my blog Data Anxiety. I want it to reflect our times. Our desire to write publicly and our fear of the exposure which public writing brings; the desire for more attention and the fear of being the recipient of unwanted attention; the desire for more information and the inability to process what we are given.
I want my blog to also reflect our pandemic times. Our questions about privacy and our need for safety and protection. Our hope that scientific rationality will save us and our nagging fear that the amount of information provided online is only making us more anxious.
Running through AC/DC Lane in Melbourne on a work trip (when such things were possible), I found myself drawn to Inner Demons, an iconic street art image located on Melbourne’s AC/DC Lane. The image struck me, mostly because I had been spending a lot of time thinking (well OK obsessing) about our reactions to information and data. The artist, Meggs, sees inner demons as symbolising our fears and desires as well as the constant struggle to either overcome or empower those emotions.
I love that he has a cape. Don’t we all picture ourselves protected by a metaphorical cape? Asked why he had leaked the documents which uncovered the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Wylie remarked that models are being built to exploit what is known about people and to target their inner demons.
Blogging and talking about data anxiety is my metaphorical cape.