The Big Data Era and the Digital Person: Empowerment of Our Internet Use Anthropological Questions Snowden’s Revelations Raise

After revealing the scandal of the NSA surveillance program, the now world-known whistleblower Edward Snowden didn’t give many interviews, as he wanted to allow a worldwide debate that would not concentrate on him personally. But with the release of Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour in October, the receipt of the alternative Nobel Prize (Right Livelihood Award) in Stockholm at the beginning of December and his first videoconference in Paris with Amnesty International last week on the International day of Human Rights, Edward Snowden has definitely not been forgotten. In his last intervention, Snowden showed an inalterable devotion to the public interest and the will to promote a debate.

Snowden’s revelations moreover provoke another debate, one that goes beyond government and corporate surveillance of people’s data and questions the philosophical, ethical and anthropological aspects of our internet use. This debate can take place by creating groups of research, discussions, media shows, education programs. In 2014, hundreds of intellectuals and artists have signed petitions for the creation of an international chart of digital rights. As Snowden pointed out in his conference, a significant change is going to take place.

How to Use the Internet: Our Responsibility

In the world debate on privacy and state surveillance, journalists, experts, lawyers, politicians, activists, commissions and courts have discussed the necessity to protect individuals’ privacy. Big Brother is no more a literary symbol. In the introduction of his book No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald asks:

Will the digital age usher in the individual liberation and political freedoms that the Internet is uniquely capable of unleashing? Or will it bring about a system of omnipresent monitoring and control? [1]

Interestingly enough, freedom of the individual seems to be limited to the sole preservation of one’s privacy, and an individual’s life reduced to data. In Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour, Glenn Greenwald addresses audiences in Brazil and New York to explain how new services such as linking one’s credit card to one’s metro card, enables knowledge of practically everything about a person’s life, job, personal interests, etc. People are legitimately shocked, but not willing to put their own choices into question. In a world where “the Internet is not some stand-alone, separate domain where a few of life’s functions are carried out. (…) Rather, it is the epicenter of our world, the place where virtually everything is done (…) where we develop and express our very personality and sense of self.”[2] , how can we afford not to discuss the cultural and psychological reasons that guide our use of the internet? The power that the internet has over us goes far beyond government and/or corporate surveillance, because it affects our notions of space, time, language, feelings, our modes of socialization, all the essentials with which people constitute a society. If the “normal person” is now the permanently-connected-digital-person, let’s make ourselves a responsibly-connected people.

Let’s reverse the perspective and assume that we are not the passive innocent users of the internet behind which Big Bad Brother is watching, but rather its most precious collaborators and products. What if the excessive surveillance was the monstrous consequence of a way of life that we have accepted as being normal, and encourage every single minute of our day? Let’s not forget that the only reason why companies like Facebook, Google, Skype, etc. have access to our most intimate thoughts, emotions and moments, is because we chose to put them online, because we click on accept the new terms and use every new device that is meant to reduce our privacy. Even if no active surveillance was effected, we still trust those companies to manage all this information for us. It’s like we were going everyday in a private office to discuss very intimate aspects of our lives, leaving pictures of ourselves in open drawers and notes indicating where we are, and then wonder how come the company knows everything. We cannot claim control over our use of internet without facing our own responsibility.

How the Internet Changes Our Way of Thinking and Percieving the World: Easier and Faster

The first step would be to study how the internet has affected some bases of our lives such as our notion of time. The miracle of speed has turned into a systematic need to get information and communications immediately. Services such as linking a Facebook account to a Google account, remembering our passwords automatically, saving files automatically in our dropbox, sending a check by scanning it on our phone, are widely used because of our urge to avoid a few clicks. Paradoxically, we don’t control the time we spend on the internet, as we are driven from one website to the next, spending hours without noticing it, or using text messages when a direct conversation on the phone would take less time.

Training people as young as possible in basic security measures on the internet is essential. Few people spend time acquiring the minimum knowledge it takes to use the internet securely. We are still careful with our employment contracts and our leases, but not the contracts that we sign with internet companies that host pictures of our families, our political positions, our intimate life, our professional activities. The internet was meant to be a huge new opening of man’s capacity to understand the world, following the Encyclopedia project of the 18th century. But the very tool that gives us access to knowledge limits our own capacity of analysis. We agree to the terms and conditions without knowing them, and even when we hear about what they involve, we do not change our habits. Our solitude behind the screen often makes us forget that internet is a public space. Learning simple things such as not using dropbox, not linking accounts, erasing history and cookies, blocking ads, would be first steps to gain back this privacy that we call freedom.

Freedom Beyond Privacy

“The desire for privacy is shared by us all as an essential, not ancillary, part of what it means to be human. (…) Privacy is a core condition of being a free person”[3], says Glenn Greenwald.

Looking at how we participate in the policy of mass surveillance is an essential part of becoming conscious internet users. Facebook has gradually made us the allies of a policy of mass surveillance. Over the years, the system has gradually changed so that being friends with someone means automatically following the person, unless unchecking the button. We know when a fellow user has read our message, we know if a person is online from a phone or a computer. In this Facebook world, the normal setup is to be viewed, identified and followed by anyone. We are taught to check on peoples’ lives constantly and anyone who wants to escape this has to make special inquiries.

Thus claiming our right to our own privacy is a more difficult question that it appears, because everyday we freely agree to having our privacy reduced. In the debate Snowden’s revelations have raised, the word freedom is often reduced to privacy. A dangerous use because humans would then be bubbles of individual data that can be shared or saved. Snowden’s story, however, is a wonderful example of how freedom and privacy are not necessarily linked, as his free act of delivering that secret information has exposed him to surveillance and exposure and forced him to hide.

Snowden is one of those people who define themselves through the internet : “Basically, the Internet allowed me to experience freedom and explore my full capacity as a human being” and Greenwald comments : “For many kids, the Internet is the means of self-actualization. It allows them to explore who they are and who they want to be.”[4] Let’s not assume this as the norm, as in this world of speed, a lot of young people switch off electronic devices, return to nature, encourage their kids to have direct relationships rather than virtual ones and to use internet as one of the many means of self-realization.

What Am I Outside Data?

Internet has created a new form of isolating socialization. In any big city today, on all continents, we see people rushing, their faces down on their phones, refusing eye contact and the acknowledgment of people’s presence. More and more people, especially those reaching thirty who remember their childhood without the internet, are sensitive to that. Photographers take pictures, videos are done to get people to quit their phones, cafes post: “We have no wi fi : speak among yourselves.”

In our rush to defy the laws of time and space, it seems that we have given up the value of physical presence. The fact that two people from two different parts of the planet can communicate and exchange is undoubtedly marvelous. But it is also true that very often, we substitute virtual exchanges for physical exchange. Friends who live in the same town cannot see each other for months, but exchange texts, thus assuming that the collection of one’s images on Facebook or messages are enough to give an idea of how the person is doing. We share comments, chats, smiley faces more often than spoken words. The internet has thus shifted peoples’ preferences towards a silent digital communication rather than a personally present one.

But how can people become conscious and make choices? Will videos and shared pictures on the internet telling us to disconnect be really effective? How should each person be motivated to draw lines according to her own priorities and values?

Our capacity of empowerment lies in the small everyday choices that we make. Speaking with a friend in a café, I will not even look at my phone if it rings. Visiting some place or being in a party, I can chose not to take quick pictures to put online that would look like so many others. When in nature and wondering what plant or animal I am looking at, I can wait for the evening to check the objective information on the internet, and explore a more subjective and physical knowledge of the plant or animal. As a matter of fact, I always have the power to live the moment of the encounter with a place, a person, a concert, outside the internet.

The French writer, reporter and diplomat Romain Gary wrote about the necessary margin that people need to keep. A margin which means that somewhere in the world man could recognize a beauty that had no use and no prize. In the same way, if we consciously maintain a margin in which a precious portion of our life is out of reach of any data, then we would gain a freedom more important than privacy.

Conclusion:

A new chapter of the internet era now opens. We now understand that the internet reflects our own conception of the world. We still give much information to Facebook, Google or Amazon, all based on surveillance, publicity and terrible work conditions. But more and more, people are looking for other models of internet usage. The future of many professions, including those of editors, writers, artists, filmmakers, depends on what model internet we encourage.

The programs of massive surveillance that Snowden revealed should be fought on the legal level, but also with our most powerful weapon : our everyday internet use. The unprecedented power of governments to check on our intimate lives is possible only because we put the information here. Psychological conditioning is much more damaging than any program of the government because it affects peoples’ judgment of their own freedom. Revealing documents will not be sufficient though: programs in schools should be created to teach the history of communications and media, how to check their sources online, how publicity works, discussing virtual life in philosophy class, etc.

If the internet has become the epicenter of our lives, questioning our internet use by knowing our needs and drawing lines between what frees us and what enslaves us, would be the ultimate act of freedom.

Notes:

1. No place to hide, p.6

2. ibid.

3. ibid, p.172

4. ibid.