The Illusion of Privacy

A recent episode of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast featured computer scientist, Ray Kurzweil, who is now working “to bring natural language understanding to Google.” Rogan and Kurzweil discussed many aspects of today’s accelerating technological progress, including artificial intelligence, but there was one exchange that stood out.

Rogan introduced the subject of privacy, which seems to be more and more difficult to attain. By themselves, our phones are, in Rogan’s words, “a little spy that you carry around with you.” Perhaps Rogan’s words sound paranoid, but if you tune in you will see that he presents evidence and cogent arguments to back up this assertion, not just rehashed conspiracies or speculation. This question of privacy is a significant one and in areas of life that impact all of us. These phone “spies” may not be spies in the traditional sense, however, these omnipresent devices, and the that way we use them, are set up to gather data that allegedly improves our “personalized experience” of the Internet.

Kurzweil, a pioneer in his field, reacted to Rogan’s questions about privacy with evident confusion. Far from giving the impression of being a cutting-edge technological guru, Kurzweil appeared more like a senile, retired professor, out of touch with time and reality. As Rogan presented one point after another showing how our privacy is affected by the decisions of our tech overlords, Kurzweil kept repeating the same line: “We have an ability to keep total privacy on a device.”

But what about hackers and the simple fact the algorithms that are building on themselves as they requires a constant stream of information? What about the fact that our phones are designed for the primary purpose of “scooping” that information?

“Only because it’s not perfect,” said Kurzweil in response to these objections. “We actually know how to create perfect privacy in your phone, and if your phone doesn’t have that, that’s just an imperfection [of the device].” In that one statement, Kurzweil expressed his ignorance not only over how the entire monopoly of technology functions, but also revealed the fact that indeed Google-aligned (and perhaps other) computer scientists know how to create privacy but are choosing not to.

Whether they display his senility or his ignorance, or some combination of both, Kurzweil’s comments stand in stark contrast to the dark realities of technology’s grip on our society. Surveillance is a reality of our times, and it can involve an intelligence agency spying on citizens or social media sites tracking our activity to bombard us with advertising. The latter may seem relatively harmless, but think of it this way: Every time we use social media we are the product that is being bought and sold on this strange market. It is our information that is being used, and companies like Google and Meta are making money thanks to our activities online. Shouldn’t they be paying us?

In her excellent book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Shoshana Zuboff writes about the conformity encouraged in our society by surveillance. We have been facing a different kind of totalitarianism than what we have known in the past. Zuboff describes this as “instrumentarianism.” It’s not just about computers talking to each other, but the fact that “they are … the foundation of an unprecedented power that can reshape society in unprecedented ways.”

She is correct. In 2014, Google co-founder, Larry Page, said, “The societal goal is [Google’s] primary goal. We need revolutionary change, not incremental change.” Zuboff correctly asserts that the ambitions of Page and others like him are a combination of “A Utopia of Certainty” and ultimate power over not just information, but people themselves.

Entities like Google want to exert control over every aspect of society. This isn’t just about getting everyone to use Google Docs or Gmail, which provide good services but, primarily, are about collecting information at a fast speed—feeding the algorithm machine that only grows fatter and hungrier as time goes by. Page continued:

“We [at Google] have to understand anything you might search for. And people are a big thing you might search for … We’re going to have people as a first-class object in search … maybe you don’t want to ask a question. Maybe you just have it answered for you before you ask it. That would be better.”

Goodbye free will! Goodbye individual consciousness! Entities like Google have only one means to achieve this goal of totality of knowledge: collecting more and more information. The idea of a search engine or an app answering my question before I even think of it, in many ways, is absurd. In fact, this just means that the entity is prompting or directing the questions.

Of course, we have to ask what kind of information is Google and social media sites are collecting. Is it worth getting upset over? Maybe the ads Facebook is spitting back at us are completely off target? In addition, why would Google assume we would be swayed by any ad, let alone something that appears on Facebook?

It may not mean anything, but isn’t it strange that if we pause to see a video on Instagram, we will immediately get similar videos or products targeted at us not just on Instagram but on so many other platforms? Everything is connected, and that’s not a good thing. Ideological environmentalists like to talk about reducing our carbon footprint in order to save the planet, but what is more important is for us to reduce our digital footprint, as much as we can.

Perhaps deleting social media accounts is not a bad idea (Jaron Lanier made 10 pretty convincing arguments for it) but in order to make that leap, most of us will first have to face the possibility that our psychological narcissism has too much of a hold over us—this, and our need to be seen and recognized. We certainly can’t be living in the past, but we should do our best to minimize our participation in feeding the algorithm monster.

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