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trackingIt is hard not to think of ourselves as the users of technology, especially since technology forms a core part of the image of our freedom. Liberty and freedom are things that we have. Depending what definition we use, liberty describes a natural faculty to do what we want, denotes the absence of external impediments, or otherwise describes the property of an agent who is free from certain constraints and free to do certain things. Either way, liberty is ours, and if technology liberates us further, then technology is ours—it is an aspect of our liberation.

Technology is thus key to how we think about our freedom. As precondition, as medium, as partner, as risk-offsetter—wherever technology may locate itself within or alongside liberty, it is never far away.

But technology, especially communications technology, is not only about “use.” The communications revolution is also the tracking revolution. Instead of ruling and being ruled, we are now tracking and being tracked—a form of watching which can shape us as though we were being ruled, but without the inconvenience or the force of politics.

Communications Technology and Liberty

Let us consider communications technology, though, first as an extension of our liberty. Where we lack freedom from external impediments, we are not free to do what we want. Communications technology confronts the impediment of distance to human contact: Underground cables make it possible for messages to be sent at high speed over distances previously unconquerable.

The list of external impediments eventually taken down by communications technology is almost endless: the transmission of audio, visual and even tactile information; the liberation from first-person perspective through cameras; the liberation of textual and other information from local storage whether physical or digital; and, in the phenomenon of virtual reality, the liberation of the imagination through powerfully simulated experience.

In spite of communications technology’s extension of our liberty, everyone calls for some restraint, whether in device-free rooms, electronics-free zones, digital detoxes, or reconnection in real life. But now when we turn off the Internet in search of “real” connections, we find that we have missed those connections which have migrated to the web. Life without the Internet turns out to be a bore.

Since both the presence and the absence of technology causes anxiety, no praise or critique of technology is fully convincing.

The anxiety connected to communications technology has to do with its status as a medium whose character is constantly shifting. Every form of networked communication has its own peculiar “grammar,” a way of shaping and presenting language consistent with the possibilities of the medium.

As users of the Internet, we gravitate toward those forms of communication whose terms of use are clearest to us. Some people understand best how to communicate via e-mail; others avoid e-mail and prefer texting or communication via picture. Each medium within the medium, so to speak, has its own capacities that match up with or fail to match up with the needs of human communication.

Who Is Watching Whom?

But the true reason that user-oriented praise and criticism of the Internet are alike misguided is that smartphones are not just windows into the world. They are, by their nature as a digitizing medium, windows into us.

It is this front on which perception has finally begun to shift. The objection that electronic communications is incomplete or inauthentic is no longer sufficient. The search bar does know the real you, even if you do not. Biometric scanning and sophisticated video monitoring, combined with sophisticated tools to analyze and categorize human behavior, can learn far more about your patterns of life than you are likely to be aware of yourself.

From your home to your work, in school or at play, online and off, behavioral tracking is now the name of the game. The revelation that Facebook tracks users’ emotional response to their news feed should have been nothing shocking at all. Every sophisticated content provider is engaged in stimulus-response tracking.

Today’s cookie tracking technology has far outstripped the dreams of its inventors in the 1990s. Inexpensive GPS technology tracks our goings and doings at almost all times. Our cellphones have left their signatures across the land—from the trail of our metadata, to attempted wifi connections, to cell tower pings, to (very likely) the entire history of all our communication.

Best to assume it is all tracked, all the time, somewhere out there in the “database of ruin.”

And Facebook has now volunteered the innocent service of listening to you through your smartphone microphone…all the time. “All the better to hear you with, my dear!”

Every service offered by modern technology firms is now also a locus of data collection. Though technology companies are eager to distance themselves from the dragnet data collection which is the NSA’s specialty, they have an obvious difficulty doing so. Their techniques are the same or even more sophisticated.

With precious few exceptions, consumer-oriented technology companies make money the same way the media always have—by delivering eyeballs that are the path to transactions. Or rather, they tell advertisers that they deliver eyeballs, whether or not they actually do.

Investors and corporate clients are interested in just how closely companies can track their customers and users. Doing so efficiently and effectively has narrowed their goal to one: comprehensive market research covering whatever can be known about you.

The old joke told by Baudrillard—“vous ne regardez plus la TV, c’est la TV qui vous regarde”—is no longer a flight of fancy.

Using and Being Used

To say all these things means that your smartphone is no mere tool, and the user’s perspective is only the beginning of the story. But it is the nature of the medium which brings this transformation about. Anything to be transmitted through digital technology must be digitized—represented by a sequence of numbers—and then reconstituted. Digitization vastly expands the power of modern communications technology over against the recording and processing of information in analog, or analogous form. The analog preserves a thing proportionate to what it is. The digital represents a thing on the basis of a code.

The user who wishes to communicate technologically across great distances thus must be rendered by his digital device into a code or sequence of numbers, rather than being preserved in an analogous form. This point may be irrelevant in any one form of communication—surely, it is no great matter that video chat encodes us as numbers along the way.

What matters instead is the whole set of ways in which we are tracked digitally—and not all, perhaps not even most in accord with our own wishes as users. It is the digitizing capacity of our devices which is in control. The more ways we can communicate digitally, the more ways we have to be represented digitally, and so the more ways we will be constantly tracked—from eye-pattern analysis to other forms of sophisticated biometric tracking.

The capacity for digitization comes from computing technology’s ever accelerating power—a power which is not for the sake of some particular end, but which simply is. In this respect, computing power is not acting as a tool, and is not simply responding to human needs. It shares that feature with modern commerce itself—whose nature, according to Montesquieu, is “to make superfluous things useful and useful ones necessary.”

That steady progression—the expansion of les nécessaires—accounts for our anxiety about technology and our anxiety over life without technology. Now that the useful things are necessary, we can hardly go without them. At the same time, we can never be certain how long the “new necessaries” will last, or what new technology will work its way into ordinary life.

What is happening now is that the computational thrust of technology—its attempt to render problems in computational terms—has ever more quickly made human beings the object of its study. This transformation was always only the other side of digitization. Yet it is just beginning to come into view.

The device which you use and which you appear to need also uses and needs you. Or rather, it is made available to you cheaply and inexpensively on condition that you allow it to learn everything about you (everything quantifiable, that is) and to give that information to the highest bidder. Believing that technology is a tool is key to the user. Realizing that technology is no mere tool is key to the entrepreneur.

Tracking, Self-Knowledge and Freedom

The vast increase in data tracking brings new but strange possibilities for what we might once have called “introspection.” The Quantified Self movement promises “self-knowledge through numbers”: It does not want communications technology to be a medium, but a means of self-control. In fact the newsfeeds are so filled with pop social science that New York Magazine introduced a new web platform called “Science of Us,” to bring data-driven scientific observations to the phenomena of ordinary life.

Companies and governments have obvious reasons to track human behavior. Indeed, the convergence of interests in society-wide data collection is too great to be resisted. But what reason do we have to track ourselves, if we choose to do so, or if we even have a choice?

Here, too, lies a dangerous necessity: as data-driven knowledge begins to shape every part of our lives, not participating will grow ever more expensive—if it even remains possible. Customer loyalty cards will seem downright quaint.

The push toward universal tracking will come from many areas—whether from the NSA (don’t forget XKeyscore), LED “smart lights” that track everything in view, citywide airborne surveillance, spray-on RFID, smart dust (which could also track thoughts), the smart grid, the Internet of Things, digestible sensors, and neural implants. In each case, companies and governments alike have already formed sophisticated models based on behavior tracking systems whose data is not accessible to us.

Indeed, you will participate yourself—whether through Dropcam’s 24/7 cloud-based video monitoring, Tile’s RFID-tagging of everything you own, or any other upcoming tracking service. You already do, if you take (geotagged) photographs as frequently as the rest of us. Will you really pay higher insurance rates to escape tracking, or will you swallow the pill of microscopic sensors that watch everything you eat and do—and secure your insurance discount?

The point is not that some simple tweak—making data on us available to us, making it easier to opt out (as if our absence would not be noticed)—would solve the matter. Rather, the point is that a certain view of freedom and a certain view of power are creating a world in which human faculties are superfluous because they are limited and inaccurate compared to scientific measurement.

The tracking revolution is the replacement of, not the extension of a human faculty. Because every advance it offers is a marginal improvement, it proceeds in rational steps toward a goal whose reasons are opaque. Like the division of labor which it imitates, the tracking revolution simplifies knowledge of human beings by breaking us down into our component parts.

The view of liberty as the absence of external impediments, as the liberation from limit, has driven the development of modern technology from the early mechanical inventions to the invention of virtual reality—an evanescent world wholly manipulable by human hands. Now that we can so easily quantify ourselves and others, it will be hard not to think of human beings as containing “external impedments” from which a liberating technology can properly free us. There will be no limit to the distortions of that liberation.

The old view of liberty, that it is a human faculty, requires liberty to be exercised by human beings over matters that are in their power. The new view, that liberty is the absence of external impediments, has begun to press so far that its compatibility with liberty as a human faculty can be called into question.

Human faculties are incomplete, vexed, uncertain, inaccurate, frail and deceptive—they themselves are impediments to liberation. In its furthest reach, the absence of external impediments has begun to suggest that it might be…nothing human at all. The very devices which represent the peak of user-friendly, labor-saving technology seem to have an ever greater interest in watching and—smoothly, secretly—shaping us.

If there is a reason not to fear the world of surveillance and tracking, it is not that privacy is unimportant or that the results of “big analytics” will disappoint—as they will. It is that even the brain, not to say the spirit, still resists quantification.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the Intercollegiate Review.

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