Policymaking in an Infomocracy

An interview with Malka Older: “…Nisa: There’s a line in your first book, “Democracy is of limited usefulness when there are no good choices, or when all the information access in the world can’t make people use it.” So imagine this world you’ve imagined has a much higher demand for free and accurate information access than we have now, in exchange for a fairly high amount of state surveillance. I’m curious what else we give up when we allow that amount of surveillance into our communities and whether that trade-off is necessary.

Malka: The amount of surveillance in the books is a very gentle extrapolation from where we are now. I don’t know if they need to be that connected but I do feel like privacy is a very relative concept. The way that we think of privacy now is very different than the way that it’s been thought of in the past, or the way it’s thought of in different places, and it’s very hard to put that back in the box. I was thinking more in terms of, since we are giving up our privacy anyway, what would I like to see done with all this information? Most of the types of surveillance that I mentioned are already very much in place. It’s hard to walk down the street without seeing surveillance cameras — they’re in private businesses, outside of apartment buildings, in lobbies, and buses and trains and pretty much everywhere.  We already know that whatever we do online is recorded and tracked in some way. If we have smartphones—which I don’t, I’m trying to resist, although it’s getting harder and harder—pretty much all of our movements are being tracked that way. The difference from the book is that the current situation of surveillance is very fragmented, and a combination of private sector and public sector, as opposed to one monolithic organization. Although, it’s not clear how different it really is from our present when governments are able to subpoena information from the private sector. The other part is that we give away a lot of this information, if not all of it, whenever we accept the terms of service agreements. We’re basically saying, in exchange for having this cool phone, I will let you use my data. But we’re learning that companies are often going far beyond what we legally agreed to, and even what we legally agree to is done in such convoluted terms and there’s an imbalance of information to begin with. That’s really problematic. Rather than thinking in terms of privacy as a kind of absolute or in terms of surveillance, I tend to think more about who owns the data, who has access to the data. The real problem is not just that there are cameras everywhere, but that we don’t know who is watching those cameras or who is able to access those cameras at any given time. Similarly, the fact that all of our online data is being recorded is not necessarily a huge problem, except when we have no way of knowing what the data is contributing to when it’s amalgamated and no recourse or control over how it’s eventually used. All this data that we create in our online trails being in the hands of a corporation that does not need to share it or reveal it, and is using it to make money, or all of that data being available to everybody or held under some sort of very clear and equitable terms where we have much more choice about what’s it’s used for and where we could access our own data. For me, it’s very much about the power structures involved….(More)”.