Once upon a time, most people believed that an omniscient being, God, was monitoring not just everything they got up to but also their every thought. When their time came, He would decide whether the next on His list should go to Heaven and spend an eternity singing His praises along with an angelic choir (a destiny many found appealing), be sent to Purgatory for remedial training or go straight to the torture chambers of Hell. But then what Mathew Arnold called the “Sea of Faith” began retreating with a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” leaving all but a handful of stalwarts feeling free to think whatever they wanted even where tyrants were doing their best to worm their way into their brains.
When it came to gathering “intelligence,” Big Brother or, for that matter, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the rest of them were not in the same league as the Christian, Jewish or Muslim god. But is this about to change? The individuals who for the last few days have been hurling insults at Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, YouTube and other outfits for harvesting data about the tastes, likes and political leanings of hundreds of millions of individuals who were unaware that they were under surveillance may be exaggerating, largely because it is alleged they used it to help Donald Trump get into the White House, but they evidently assume that the brief period in which privacy really meant something is drawing to its end.
Strangely enough, back in 2012, when Barack Obama’s team made good use of a Facebook app much like the presumably better version Cambridge Analytica developed, news outlets that are currently berating the two firms thoroughly approved of the then president’s willingness to take advantage of technological advances in the election campaign.
But that was then. Thing are different today; much of the political establishment is trying to convince itself that Trump must have got to where he is by underhand means and is determined to ensure that nothing like it happens again. There is also the now almost universal fear that the high-tech giants spawned in Silicon Valley have become far too rich, too powerful and too inquisitive and therefore deserve to be cut down to size.
The public furore that erupted over the exploitation of computerised snooping by political strategists of the wrong kind wiped US$50 billion or so dollars off Facebook’s market value almost overnight. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission has got into the act and is gunning for the company’s zillionaire CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, as is its equivalent in the European Union. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic want to bring him down. Many are also keen to see Google bite the dust.
In a world in which most of us are already interconnected, or soon will be, companies are finding it increasingly easier to identify potential customers for the goods or services they want to sell. They can also target those they suspect will be influenced by cunningly designed ideological propaganda. Using Facebook profiles, YouTube preferences and Google searches, plus algorithms that nudge users toward sites they are expected to like, companies can get to know a great deal about large numbers of individuals; apparently, more facts, hard or not, have been collected and then stored away in data banks the last three or four years than were available in all the preceding millions. Not surprisingly, commercial enterprises and political organisations are willing to pay large sums of money for such information.
The business of manipulating people is still in a fairly primitive stage. If, as sometimes happens, your finger strays and presses against an arbitrarily chosen site, you may find yourself invited by a solicitous algorithm to sample a selection of mawkish Japanese ballads, watch North Americans playing what they call football or be told about a long lost tribe, but no doubt they are getting better at the job all the time.
We are often warned that the tech firms know more about us that we do ourselves. Up to a point, that may be true, what with details about passwords, phone numbers, ‘likes,’ tax returns, bank accounts, property and even health details being within their reach, but there are limits. Nobody lives entirely online and, as yet, no brains have been uploaded into cyberspace. However, the rapidly intensifying sensation that just about everyone – apart from a handful of technophobic recluses holed up in the woods – is inextricably entangled in the web is feeding paranoia and in this way is contributing to the unease that has gripped much of the Western World.
It is also helping to widen the gap between embattled progressives and the common folk who are rebelling against their tutelage. Many of the former have come to the conclusion that much of what they dislike – Trump, Brexit, the proliferation of “right-wing” movements in Europe – can be attributed to cyber-massaging by experts in the dark arts such as that villainous Russian Vladimir Putin. Needless to say, right-wingers are just as fond of conspiracy theories as are their left-wing counterparts; they put the blame for whatever upsets them on the Hungarian-born magnate George Soros.
The assumption that those who disagree with you are easily manipulated sheep, who can be enslaved by algorithms, and that something must be done to stop it is dangerous. On both sides of the divide, authoritarian approaches are becoming more respectable than had been the case until very recently. Since Brexit, those on the left, even the centre-left, distrust public opinion which in their view is at the mercy of sinister data harvesters. Along with devotees of the “European project” on the continent who are determined to cling to the notorious “democratic deficit” they have come to depend on, they would like to prevent the ignorant masses from influencing political decisions they believe should be left in the hands of accredited experts. Their opponents take heart from the French president Emmanuel Macron’s admission that, given a chance, his own compatriots would in all probability emulate the British and vote to leave the European Union, and accuse the progressive left of betraying the majority of their fellow citizens by refusing to take their interests into account. They could soon be at one another’s throats.