Monday, July 05, 2021

High-Tech Surveillance and Control: Citizens or Sheep?


In recent testimony before the U. S. Senate's Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, philosopher and author Matthew B. Crawford reminded his audience that the Revolutionary War was fought for principles that are now once again in jeopardy.  In a summary of his remarks posted on the website of the technology and society journal The New Atlantis, Crawford pointed out that the coming era of smart-home technology comes with a price that people may not fully understand.  He used the example of the Sleep Number bed product, which includes a phone app that must be installed to gain the full benefits of the bed.  To use the app, the user must agree to a sixteen-page "privacy policy" which is in reality anything but. 


The policy, which a vanishingly small number of users probably read in its entirety, talks about all the things that you allow the Sleep Number people to do with information about what is probably the most intimate and private sector of your life—the time you spend in bed, alone or with someone else.  Although this part of the policy has been deleted, one section used to state that the app was also allowed to transmit "audio in your room."  And the tracking can go on even after you cancel your Sleep Number account.


Crawford pointed out that this is only one prominent example of the multifarious ways that big tech is invading all aspects of our lives to mine data that is then used to "determine the world that is presented to us" and to "determine our standing in the reputational economy" with regard to credit ratings, for example.  One need only look to China to see how a malevolent government can employ high-tech means to rank its citizens by standards that it alone determines.  But the difference between what the Chinese Communist Party does and what Experian or Sleep Number does is only a matter of degree, not of kind.


The ability to take private information from us and to use it in ways that ultimately benefit corporations rather than individuals, without the individuals involved having any effective say over the process, is a good definition of tyranny.  Substitute "the state" for "corporations" and you have a good description of the way life was in the old Soviet Union.  And at least the USSR was honest enough to admit that the state took priority over the individual. 


But in the picture painted by our supposedly free-market big-tech firms, it's all positives and no negatives:  everything is "free" and all they're trying to do is give you a personalized world that will make you happier—or at least more profitable to them.


Politics is simply the conduct of public affairs, as a seventh-grade civics teacher once told me.  Facebook, Google, Apple, and their ilk are private only in the sense that they are not recognized as sovereign states (yet).  But if you measure the degree to which an organization is public by number of people affected, money that flows through it, or its power to influence lives, Google is a lot more of a public entity than the United States or even the United Nations. 


As Crawford reminded the senators, the Revolutionary War of 1776 was fought, among other things, over the way the government of Britain allowed corporations to control trade with the colonies.  Simply to go about one's ordinary life, one was forced to deal with certain British companies and had no choice in the matter, even if the prices or quality of service or goods was way out of line with reasonable expectations.


Surely there is a parallel between that situation and the fact that getting up in the morning, driving to work, and doing one's job, to say nothing of communicating with one's family and friends, is virtually impossible these days without submitting oneself to the powers of big-tech firms that are doing opaque things to one's data and one's online world.


Crawford drew an apt parallel between the way big-tech firms operate and the governmental trend of power flowing away from Congress—the only branch of government designed to represent the people in a direct way—and the administrative state of experts who are not beholden to anyone but their own kind.  Both are signs that whatever control the populace used to exert over either government or private business is waning, while power is concentrating in the hands of an elite group of overlords and their technological minions. 


He left the senators with a probing question:  "Who rules?"  Is it the people?  Congress?  The executive branch?  Or is it a group of mostly faceless high-tech employees and their billionaire controllers who, while sometimes intending to do the right thing, will not let anything get in the way of continuing to make money in the most successful way possible.  And one can't really blame them for that.  But one can take steps to safeguard what used to be the most cherished aspect of living in the United States:  freedom from tyranny. 


Crawford made no suggestions as to how this might be accomplished.  In the space I have remaining, I will throw something out that I'm sure is full of holes, but might get the ball rolling.


It used to be the case that banks could not operate outside of the state in which they were chartered.  In 1927, the federal McFadden Act restricted banks from opening branches across state lines.  That law did nothing to stop the Great Depression, but it did preserve the regional nature of the banking industry until the Riegle-Neal Act of 1994 rescinded most of those restrictions. 


One thing we could try would be to pass a kind of McFadden Act for online companies.  As legal corporations, they could not operate as a single entity, but only as state-chartered organizations.  You wouldn't have one Google:  you'd have fifty Googles, each with a physical presence in each state. Obviously, for Google to be Google, you'd have to allow them to exchange data somehow, but not money.  If something like this were proposed, I'm sure Google's corporate heads would scream bloody murder and say it would destroy the company, but that's just what we heard when the Bell System breakup came along.  And look what happened:  not only did phone service not vanish, it got a great deal better.  And something similar might happen with Google.  We'll never know until we try.


Sources:  Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft:  An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, is the author of "Defying the Data Priests" posted at  I also referred to an article on interstate banking at

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