Perhaps the last two trends we’d ever imagine converging are the decades-long path to individual self-expression via technology with the rise of mass surveillance via the national security state. But, on this auspicious fifth of November, we do well to remember how all this came to be.

What the Dormouse Said

As John Markoff eloquently recounted in his classic book on the origins of the personal computer industry, the story of personal technology is intimately wound up with the Bay Area culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and in particular the nexus of engineering and counterculture movements and experiences. By creating technology for the masses, the utopian dreams of the Sixties could be realized: a collective consciousness, comprised of individual acts of personal expression, forming communities that could transcend the boundaries of time and space. From the first Apple computer, to the mass PC movement, then the migration online via WELL, messaging boards, CompuServe, AOL, and finally the graphical, indexed Internet, the march of liberation and self-expression seemed headed to that very utopia.

And then what happened? Along came Commerce. As Markoff wrote:

The computer hackers’ urge to share and the entrepreneurs’ desire for wealth–it is a confrontation that will inevitably define new technology revolutions. The stage is set for a clash of values that echo the very forces that created Silicon Valley.

In the beginning, monetizing the Internet simply meant doing online what we were already doing in brick and mortar stores: shopping and purchasing. An easy analogy, and one that led to the first great Internet boom in e-commerce. On the ashes of that crash, however, emerged a new, “Web 2.0” way of experiencing and monetizing the Web: the most successful companies from a profit standpoint would no longer be the ‘click this to buy this’ companies (e.g. Amazon), but ‘pay me to get him/her to click this to buy this’ advertising and search companies (mostly notable, Google AdWords and now Facebook). In this new online business model, obtaining data on what someone might purchase (and selling it to interested parties) became even more valuable than the purchase itself.

Sue Halpern in this month’s New York Review of Books has an outstanding summary of this:

Once (Web 2.0) happened, people began to make aspects of their private lives public, letting others know, for example, when they were shopping at H + M and dining at Olive Garden, letting others know what they thought of the selection at that particular branch of H + M and the waitstaff at that Olive Garden, then modeling their new jeans for all to see and sharing pictures of their antipasti and ravioli…the social Web celebrated, rewarded, routinized and normalized this kind of living out loud…although they likely knew that these disclosures were funding the new economy, they didn’t especially care.

Combine this with a trend we discussed in an earlier post, the “Quantifiable Self”, and one sees how the information economy has harnessed our own desire for personal knowledge and advancement onto a business model of collecting and selling data.

OK, so maybe Proctor & Gamble knows a little too much about what I like to buy? What’s the big deal?

Enter the Dragon

By intriguing coincidence, the rise of this data-driven information economy from around 2001 forward paralleled, in the post 9/11 era, a vast expansion of data collection on the part of the Federal government. From the Patriot Act forward, enabling legislation made it possible for the National Security Agency and others to capture enormous amounts of data (theoretically, only from non-citizens). Since the international flow of data largely moves through the United States (this again a result of the birth of the online economy in America), that means US data eventually gets caught in the net, whether accidentally or deliberately. This desire for data, under the laudable goal of protecting us from further terrorist attacks, increasingly began to take on a life of its own. When Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the mass surveillance now going on, against US citizens, foreign leaders, and suspect groups alike, were any of us really surprised? Data, technology, information, and human need landed at a place at once very different and very similar to where it landed in the information economy: I want to know what you’re doing.

Who’s to blame for this new state of affairs? The whistle-blower ostensibly damaging US reputation and security efforts? An administration that claims to be unaware of the worst excesses? Perhaps, in our hunger for information and connection, all of us are to blame for not being more vigilant.

For a conclusion, let’s turn again to Sue Halpern:

But while we were having fun, we happily and willingly created the greatest surveillance system ever imagined, a web whose strings give governments and businesses countless threads to pull..the free flow of information over the Internet, which serves us well, may serve others better. Whether this distinction turns out to matter may be the one piece of information the Internet cannot deliver.

In short, we need to stay tuned. But this time, let’s not drop out.

Sean Ketchem, PhD

Sean Ketchem, PhD, is a branding and content strategy consultant based in San Francisco. You can reach him at csketchem@gmail.com.

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