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The Nature of the Self in the Digital Age

Linked by Paul Ciano on March 12, 2016

I cannot think of anyone who has more closely worked their way to the root of many of society's ills than Aral Balkan. While numerous people are self-medicating with social media and primetime television, Aral is looking at the big picture and asking the hard questions.

The important question is this: who owns and controls the data about you and the mechanisms by which it is collected, analysed, and transformed into useful services?

There is a war raging for the sanctity of the self. On one hand, are corporations and government agencies that have grown complacent after years of appeasement. On the other, is everyone else.

Today, the answer to the question is that multinational corporations like Google and Facebook own and control both your personal data and the means of collecting, analysing, and deriving value from it.

Human beings have always been tied to their technology, and modern life has aggrandized this relationship. People around the world, rich and poor, have come to rely on their portable computers for maintaining the personal and professional aspects of their lives.

To consider these devices an extension of our selves is a logical step, and people like Aral Balkin are wisely starting to make the case that the protections we have for our selves should extend to these devices.

Today, we are all cyborgs. This is not to say that we implant ourselves with technology but that we extend our biological capabilities using technology. We are sharded beings; with parts of our selves spread across and augmented by our everyday things.

Perhaps it is time to extend the boundaries of the self to include the technologies by which we extend our selves.

My iPhone is not like a safe any more than my brain is like a safe. It is a part of my self. In which case, if you want to get into my iPhone, what you really want to do is to violate my self. This is an assault on the self. And we already have a rich body of laws and regulations that protect the sanctity of the self and the rights of human beings.

...we don’t need to concoct a new Internet Bill of Rights or a Magna Carta for the Web or any such nonsense: all we need to do is to apply the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the human rights we already have – to the digital era. There isn’t a digital world and a real world. There isn’t human rights and “digital rights”. The things that we are talking about are one and the same.

When you adopt this perspective (and I do believe it is a valid perspective), the technology landscape looks different.

Personal data isn’t the new oil, personal data is people.

Now this is not to say that Google, Facebook, and the countless other startups in the cult of Silicon Valley want to 3D print you. No, of course not. They simply want to profile you. To simulate you. For profit.

The modern-day system of colonialism and sharecropping being constructed by the new East India Company that is Silicon Valley isn’t uncouth or stupid enough to put people in physical shackles. It doesn’t want to own your body, it is content with owning your simulation. And yet, as we have already seen, the more data they have about you – the higher the fidelity of your simulation – the closer they are to owning you.

Through the military/industrial/surveillance complex, the power relationships that were already asymmetrical become even more skewed.

All of this personal information, and the wealth of insight derived from it, belong to the corporations and, by extension (as Edward Snowden has shown us), are shared with governments.

This creates a huge power differential between individuals and corporations and between individuals and their governments.

Of course, the rules that apply to those that yield their data do not apply to those who wield it.

When Mark Zuckerberg says "privacy is dead", he’s only talking about your privacy, not his. When he buys a house, he buys the houses on both sides also. His privacy, the privacy of Facebook, Inc., and the privacy of your government are still very much alive and well.

If this doesn’t sound like democracy, it is because it is not. Surveillance Capitalism isn’t compatible with democracy.

Every week, I hear people talking about the topics I have been obsessing over for years. In particular, I find the notion that some government agencies are advocating that there should be no place in our lives that is beyond their reach to be particularly disturbing (literally No Place to Hide).

You should consider the attack on our extended selves to be a beachhead in a war for control of the future. Whomever has the most data, the most powerful computers, and the best Artificial Intelligence wins.

They will not stop at smartphones. There is a significant part of the population (at least in my country) that has not fully internalized the ramifications of the last 50 years of biological research. Make no mistake; your mind, your memories, everything that you hold dear about yourself, is embodied by your brain.

Whether it happens toward the end of our lifetimes, or generations ahead, it is only a matter of time before we understand how the brain encodes thought and represents memories. Once this happens, it is not difficult to imagine that we will be able to literally see into someone's mind.

If this were possible, do you think the authorities would not ask for access? If they screamed Terrorism!, would you say OK, as long as it did not interfere with your VR time?

If we have become such sheep, such cowards, that we cannot find the courage to defend a private space in our lives, the wolves will not stop in creating the future they desire. The cost will be the last vestiges of our dignity, and ultimately, our humanity.

The time to make a stand is now. An Apple defeat will mark the beginning of a further decline of democracy, human rights, and freedom. We need to accept that we will never be safe, and that some things are worth dying for.

Too long, have those in positions of power become accustomed to our acquiescence. Too long, have their demands been met with unquestioning acceptance, and too long has their irresponsible behavior gone unpunished.

As Orson Welle's said in Touch of Evil:

A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.

We deserve a better world, and we are going to need to make sacrifices to get it.

Paul Ciano

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