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Users or used?

The legitimisation for the increased use of government surveillance measures means that we are all sleepwalking into mass surveillance.

ASH NARAIN ROY |

In the age of high-tech consumerism, we are consumers first and citizens second. The tech giants don’t merely sell their products, they are spreading a new gospel truth: the faith in the magic of the machine. The big techs and greedy corporations promise to improve the lot of humankind but do the opposite. Rather than freeing up time for us, technology has enslaved us. As Richard Maxwell of Queens College says, “we now live as devices of our own devices, not as inhabitants of a living planet.” For all the cheerleading, technology has an equity problem. We need technology to tackle our biggest challenges. But who exactly controls technology and to what purpose? Big techs have created affluence without abundance. First, they create desires in us that we never had. Then they tell us we must buy their products to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Computers, smartphones, and other electronic gadgets are infamous for their rapid obsolescence. How long can we keep our e-waste in other people’s backyards? Technology promised to erase our loneliness during a crisis. But it has made us lonely and busier. In fact, it has created a loneliness epidemic. Before 1800, the English word ‘loneliness’ didn’t exist. Of course, solitude existed. Solitude is more than a state of being alone. Sociologist Sherry Turkle says that mobile technology means “we’re always on, always plugged in, always stimulated, always in a constant state of selfpresentation”. Yet, we are what her book’s title suggests ‘Alone Together.’ This has changed how we think, feel, and interact with one another. Internet dreams liberation and invents nightmare. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky would say, “life is paradise, and we all are in paradise, but we refuse to see it.”

We are living under technohallucination believing technology can solve everything. It is nothing but a utopian delusion. Our soul dies as technology triumphs. While the Covid pandemic has created an unprecedented health crisis globally, and economic anxiety has taken a toll on mental health of children and young people, no one made as much money out of the pandemic as the owners of technology stocks. The Covid pandemic was good for the wallets of the wealthy. According to an Oxfam study, some 573 people joined the billionaires club after 2020 bringing the worldwide total to 2,668. Political leaders are never tired of flaunting digitisation as a success story. But there is a price that citizens have paid. The Chinese experience is scary. Modern digital surveillance techniques have allowed China’s so-called social credit system to expand into all aspects of life.

If a person’s score drops low enough, they’re denied access to certain services, like booking a train or flight. Other punishments include slow internet connection and exclusion from high prestige work. This game is already in town in many democracies. The legitimisation for the increased use of government surveillance measures means that we are all sleepwalking into mass surveillance. It threatens our privacy, but it doesn’t stop at that. More and more companies including big stores are using face recognition technology. You are visiting a departmental store. If the company’s computer matches your face against a database of people they don’t want in the store, the security guards are instructed to remove you. People of colour, women and people with a physical disability are mostly at the receiving end.

So much for bestowing divinity on technology! In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff says that such a system “is a direct intervention into free will, an assault on human autonomy.” We are no longer users of technology; we are used. The prospects of a wired brain and its potential for monitoring and controlling human behaviour are even scarier. The brain-computer-interface could be the real game changer. Its goal is to make our thinking process transparent. It is still incipient but very real. As American essayist Robert Bly says in his book The Sibling Society, we are now living in a world where people “don’t bother to grow up.” At a time when we don’t know if we like what we like or what an algorithm wants us to like, “we are all fish swimming in a tank of half-adults.” Bly blames the acquisitive American capitalism and consumerist society for the adults remaining “perpetual adolescents afraid to grow.” But there is a far bigger price that we are likely to pay. As South Korea-born cultural theorist Byung-chul Han argues, the digital world will make us “homo ludens” and we will be focusing more on play rather than work.

After all, devices and techniques of domination are used for subjugation. What we call a digital comfort zone is indeed a digital prison. There is another worrying trend. Rather than creating a digital republic, we are told to rely on a ministry of truth. And only a ruling dispensation has monopoly over truth. Internet for the people is a myth; the internet is a business. It has only facilitated political leaders telling one lie too many. The guiding philosophy of modern political messiahs is “ask me no question and I will tell you no lies.” Political scientists have been cautioning us about the hollowing out of the state and the rise of corporate power. By rewarding, empowering and amplifying key centres of economic power, we have promoted a new model of capitalism, what some term “rentier nationalism.” What happened during the Stalin era? Conformity became a norm. In order to be happy, people were told to conform. Happiness of all was sought to be achieved by de-individualisation of each one. Today many in the democratic world are trying the same.

The billionaires are part of the project that an analyst calls “autocracy for kleptocracy.” For Stalin and others of his ilk, adversaries were all those who did not applaud. Electoral autocracy is traversing a similar path. We have to modify technology or else technology will modify us. The fear of being alone threatens to become a mass phenomenon. Pablo Picasso understood it long ago. He said, “computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”