Sunday, 30 April 2017

Big Data and the Death of Individual Freedom

Big Data is the biggest thing, perhaps that the internet has given to conglomerates, corporates, business houses, corporations, and even repressive governments that want to keep tabs on troublemakers.  In many ways, I find a parallel between the collection of Big Data today, and the collection of information by Socialist states. Citizens reported to the secret police on activities of their fellow citizens, and some even went on to report on their own family members. This reminds me of the Stassi, in East Germany, the Dergue, in Ethiopia and the Cheka ( Later KGB ) in the USSR, secret police organizations that collected dossiers of evidence on their citizens. This information was used to detain, harass, blackmail and exterminate ‘troublemakers’ – people who did not ‘conform’ or even toe the line. Failure to accept the ‘accepted’ beliefs of Socialism could lead to dire consequences. The collection of Big Data, is not, therefore, something new, and it is not, I repeat, it is not what makes us really different from the Stassi, the Dergue, or even the KGB. Access to the internet and the presence of a number of social networking sites has made Big Data collection more vicious, and cut-throat!
Big Data, is nothing but spying on individual freedom and privacy. Forget about phone tapping, eavesdropping, or even photo-surveillance, your whole life, preferences, strengths, weaknesses, passwords, likes and dislikes, and movement, to mention a few are out there on Big Data. So when you are checking into some well-known food joint, you are publishing your information on the net, for some vitiated hacker to use! Robbers know when to strike at your home, because they know you have checked into Chingg’s Restaurant in Connaught place are not likely to return home. Remember that story about a famous personality who had been robbed at home in Paris? The robbers knew she would be in her Paris flat with all her jewelry.
But then, it is not just robbers, who look for Big Data, in fact, business houses, content marketers, advertisers, manufacturers and other commercial vested interests are spying on you. They are monitoring your window shopping activities online and they will tantalize you with advertisements of products that you viewed on Amazon or Flipkart, or for that effect any other online shopping portal. Ever wondered why you see pop up advertisements of exactly the same products you viewed on another site? I love browsing for DSLR Cameras, their specs, and prices online. I might visit Amazon for the same. When I next visit some other website, I see advertisements for cameras that I had browsed earlier.
Human beings have become open books in the twenty-first century, thanks to the collection of Big Data, and the constant monitoring that everyone is going through. What has made things worse today is that we have more ‘Big Brothers’ today than we had in the Soviet Union, or GDR, or even puppet regimes like the ones that existed in Ethiopia from the mid nineteen seventies to the end of the nineteen eighties. I wonder if somehow, Socialism and Communism might not have had the last laugh in this century, what with the steadying deterioration of individual privacy, and individualism as a whole! The ideal Socialist state is one in which everyone is equal, everyone has equal opportunities, equal rights, and equal duties. The ideal Communist state is when there is the ‘withering away of the state’ and that can happen only when the individual is totally subservient to the state, there is the rule of the Proletariat and no place for the Bourgeoisie. The issue of social security numbers, pan cards, Aadhar cards and other such identification marks are in fact merely tags meant to identify people by their numbers. The moment numbers and tags become more important than the individual himself, you have in fact taken away that individual’s right to be called by his name. You have made him a conformist, someone who can be tracked for disruption, non-conformity and being, for that effect, different. Communism does not tolerate too much non-conformism or even disruption. Big Data is turning the whole human society into one huge mechanical, conformist, and spiritually dead dystopia! Aldous Huxley has described exactly such a world in his book, Brave New World. The book describes a world of conformists, automatons, and zombies who are controlled by Big Data and forced to conform. Those who don’t conform to accepted rules of the state are exiled to the few remaining ‘Savage Reservation’.
The attempt to control individual choice and the attempt to moderate individual differences by organizations, governments and corporations have been described by Aldous Huxley, in another of his books, titled Island. In a conversation between Susila and Will, we come to know that children are taught  “The three R’s plus rudimentary S.D.” The term, “S.D.” refers to “Alias Destiny Control”, some kind of auto-suggestion. Susila tells Will Farnaby that in the schools on the island of Pala, “You just tell them what they’re supposed to do and leave it at that.” Big Data collection is simply, a means to ensure conformity, prevent dissent, and thwart disruption, in the long run, same as the party apparatchiks did in Communist countries. Madeleine L’Engle wrote about exactly such a scenario in her novel, A Wrinkle in Time. In this book, there is a place called Camazotz all the people look and behave the same way, they conform to accepted norms and rules, and they are ruled over by IT, a giant disembodied brain. One might look at IT in Madeleine’s book as a metaphor for Big Data, and IT’s role in Camazotz as being that of  Big Data Collection!

1. Huxley Aldous: Island, Flamingo Modern Classic -1994
2. Huxley Aldous: Brave New World, Flamingo Modern Classic – 1994
3. L’Engle Madeleine: A Wrinkle in Time, Yearling Books - 1973

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