The New Domesday Book

“We tend to think of William as more or less permanently in the saddle. He grew up in a world, after all, where authority was usually delivered on the blade of a sword. So it’s all the more impressive that he seems to have understood instinctively that information could also be power. William the conqueror was the first database king.”  – Simon Schama

Here’s a great piece (“The Lights Are On but Nobody’s Home”) about the dangers of increased interconnectivity, which is really just a guise for increased corporate technological control, couched in the desire—which we’re told we all secretly share—to have our entire lives monitored, analyzed, and archived:

The IoT [Internet of Things] promises users an unending capability to parse personal information, making each of us a statistician of the self, taking pleasure and finding reassurance in constant data triage. As with the quantified self movement, the technical ability for devices to collect and transmit data — what makes them “smart” — is its own achievement, the accumulation of data is represented as its own reward. “In a decade, every piece of apparel you buy will have some sort of biofeedback sensors built in it,” the co-founder of OMsignal told Nick Bilton, a New York Times technology columnist. Bilton notes that “many challenges must be overcome first, not the least of which is price.” But convincing people they need a shirt that can record their heart rate is apparently not one of these challenges.

And of course, all advertising is really PR for the status quo, i.e. continual consolidation and solidification of oligarchies:

Whoever prevails in this competition to connect, well, everything, it’s worth remembering that while the smartphone or computer screen serves as an access point, the real work — the constant processing, assessment, and feedback mechanisms allowing insurance rates to be adjusted in real-time — is done in the corporate cloud. That is also where the control lies. To wrest it back, we will need to learn to appreciate the virtues of products that are dumb and disconnected once again.

This questioning of, well, unquestioned technology reminds me of the definitive work on the subject (in my humble opinion): In the Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander. One of Mander’s best arguments is that technological “advancements” (see, even the language of critiquing technology starts with a pro-technology bias as the default) almost always benefit those at the top of hierarchies, despite the pervasive assertion that they increase standards of living, or freedom, or the ability to challenge power structures. The Internet will make every institution—from governments to workplaces to global international coalitions—more democratic, right?

Do you have more power, more freedom—more happiness—because you have access to the Internet? Or do you have less of everything: less privacy, less real friends, less self-esteem, less time? Does the Internet help you confront power structures, or does it hinder you through distraction, compartmentalization, and surveillance? Who does that trend serve?

Or, as I presume Mander would ask: could you take apart the Internet if you wanted to? At what point does it stop being a choice?


5 thoughts on “The New Domesday Book

  1. That last line — “At what point does it stop being a choice?” — has been on my mind lately regarding smartphones. I assume alternatives (flip phones, mainly) will become increasingly difficult to find or hold onto, though I don’t see companies outright nixing them for at least a few years. Well, I hope anyway. Who knows. How long will landlines be around? Ten more years, maybe?

    • Yeah the last time I “updated” by phone, the sales dude almost didn’t believe that I just wanted the plain, no internet, no camera, $14 nokia. But seriously, answering emails all day? What could be worse than that?

  2. Ha, yeah, someone I share a plan with said when they went to get an update, the sales guy was astounded that I had not updated myself for several years. As if I’m the creep….

  3. Yes, not having the latest gadget is a real faux pas, but an even bigger faux pas is to actually know what’s going on in the world and talk about it publicly; you should have 16 devices on your person at any given time, but for god’s sake don’t even think about using any one of them to connect to other humans (or non-humans)…

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