An unfortunate tractor accident and the death of the digital record

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.  

Netflix goes head to head with Digital Frankenstein

Image by myself

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? 

I know what I believe.

Unpacking our anxiety

Image by me

I once had a job where the basement flooded.  As we crept down the stairs with flashlights, cold water creeping up to our calves, pieces of paper floated past us sticking as they went. Peering down we could see certificates of title. Each document protecting someone’s ownership of their home and property.

We forget that information and data is usually about someone. It is not something which can be easily sold or destroyed. The latest OAIC survey of Australians asked us to consider what the word privacy means to us.

The most common interpretation, “the idea of keeping one’s information private and confidential” was high on the list.  Interestingly, so were more complex concepts such as “the right to security and respect”, and “the idea of living free from interference and maintaining one’s lawful right to be left alone”.

A whopping 97% of Australians consider privacy important when choosing a digital service and 70% see the protection of personal information as a major concern in their life. There is major disjunct occurring between how we want our information to be treated and its ability to be commodified by technology.

Commodification is about more than selling. In 2017, the Australian reported on a leaked Facebook presentation to advertisers which used the concept of anticipatory emotions in teens to target advertising by days of the week. By monitoring emotions, the service would determine exactly when to provide a “confidence boost” presumably through a targeted service or product.  As Wylie stated when leaking the Cambridge Analytica scandal, models are being built to exploit what is known about people and to target their inner demons.

As new technology such as the Internet of Things and AI ramps up the commodification of information, the clash of expectations appears to be intensifying. 83% of Australians consider a personal device listening to their conversations and sharing it without their knowledge a misuse. 84% believe that Australians have a right to know if a decision impacting them is made by AI technology and 82% believe they should have the right to have a human review any decision made using A1 technology, even if it costs the organization money.

So why is the commodification of personal information important? Ultimately, it is about the type of society we wish to live in. Privacy advocates argue that privacy is a public good which grants individuals the agency and autonomy necessary to support a democratic society. That newer forms of technology such as facial recognition software and data matching increase inequality and impact unfairly on the most vulnerable in society. They argue that the human futures market sale of algorithmic predictions on human behaviour is a fundamentally unethical practice which should be stopped.

Blogging in a pandemic

Image taken by me

My pandemic has been spent in a bubble. Living in Sydney we were locked down but only briefly. We are those people who not only don’t anyone who has had the pandemic but don’t anyone who knows anyone who has had the pandemic.

But still the pandemic has changed us. I have started walking everywhere, taken up the bass guitar and yes, I have started this blog. The zeitgeist has bled into the blog and given it the name “data anxiety”. Perhaps, at a different point in time, I would have focused on “data happiness”, “data optimism” or just plain “data hope”. But I want my blog to capture the feelings of the contemporary world towards information and data. The schizophrenic feeling of wanting and desiring more and more information and yet being fearful of the impact of it.

This feeling of anxiety caused by the impact of technology and information has been recognised by the World Health Organisation as an infodemic. Apparently too much information can be, well, too much.  Experts are asking us to step away, to take some time out from information and data as a form of “handwashing for the infodemic acompanying the pandemic”

Albert Camus stated that integrity has no need of rules. I would like my blog to explore new technologies and new forms of information and to ask whether the basic ethical precepts upon which we perceive and judge the use of information and data have changed. Or if they have become an elastic band stretching and taking on strange and new pathways illuminating, testing and stretching the boundaries of our ethics.

Data anxiety is a mindset for the pandemic age.

Inner Demons

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.

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