Last month at the Techonomy conference in Half Moon Bay, California, a group of technologists explored the ethics of developing web services in the age of artificial intelligence. How much do people really understand about the information they’re giving up in return for a service, an audience member asked, and can they choose not to give up that data?
The question was met, at first, with a quizzical silence. Data is the fuel that makes the Internet work. Without it, online services aren’t as personal, or as useful. Then someone on the panel remarked that, of course, a user has to give up data, but it’s her choice. She could choose, instead, to opt out.
But could she? Can anyone?
To scrape together a living in a knowledge-based economy, you pretty much have to participate. Most people can’t afford not to be online.
A decade ago, American Internet refusers were the olds and the luddites. They didn’t really get it, or get why it had value to them. Or they couldn’t afford it. Adding the necessary equipment (computer, smartphone) and the monthly hook-up fee was a significant expense. Five years ago, avoiding the Internet was counter-culture. A small number of people chose not to get it, or to value it. Today, however, the only people who can avoid the Internet are the privileged, the people with a trust fund. To scrape together a living in a knowledge-based economy, you pretty much have to participate. Most people can’t afford not to be online.
I’m not knocking the ‘net. It has made my personal life immeasurably better. Shortly, I’ll get off a plane, and by the time I hit the concourse, I will have arranged my transportation home and for dinner to be waiting. I’ll have ensured my dog is walked, and informed my editor he should publish this piece. That will take a dozen clicks on four apps.
But these technological advances can become coercive, even as they create new opportunities. I often hunger to opt out of the endless noise and distraction of the Internet. (Every August, I take a month off of social media, and invariably, I notice my anxiety level plummet.) And increasingly, I notice the way the apps I patronize subtly inform my behavior.
The Air Around Us
Recently, on a road trip, I plugged my destination into Google Maps. I chose my preferred route, and the Siri-like navigator said, “You have chosen the best route.” What? The fastest route, maybe. But the best route? How does Google know what my best route is? Maybe a better route would be one that stopped off at a friend’s house or passed through a scenic area. And while I can get away with dropping Google Maps (paper maps are so retro) or Facebook for a time, eventually, I will need to log on to the ‘book or pull up a Google search box to fulfill the tasks required of my profession. To participate in today’s economy, you need to participate in the Internet.
Here, reader, you may interject that you are not a person who uses Facebook. So there! Or maybe, you use Bing instead of Google. Or clear your cache constantly, and turn off GPS. Even so, the large global Internet services—primarily Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon—are nearly impossible to sidestep. Even if you don’t use them, they will use you—in ways you likely don’t and can’t track entirely.
The Internet has become as ubiquitous as air, an ambience that surrounds you.
That’s because, while the Internet may have lived behind a computer screen for the first two decades of its commercial existence, now it has become as ubiquitous as air, an ambience that surrounds you. Wake up in the morning, turn on your phone, and GPS will note your position, updating all of your apps. Get into any relatively new car, and it’ll record where you are going and how you are driving. Turn on your Nest thermostat, and it’ll record your heat preference. Then there’s your Fitbit, Jawbone Up, Apple Watch, Lynx lightbulb, Dropcam security camera, and on and on. Even if you don’t seek the web out, somewhere an Internet-powered service is logging and analyzing your behavior. There’s no going off the grid, because life is the grid.
Which brings me back to the Techonomy discussion on ethics. We have invented the Internet, and it is now a staple of human life, infusing itself into our daily routines and informing our habits. Smart software companies are harnessing artificial intelligence to improve the products and services they offer up. It’s incumbent upon these companies to put ethics at the center of their product development strategies, because, while the services they offer are commercial, they’ve also become utilities. Most of us have electricity. We have running water in our houses. And we have the Internet. There’s no opting out.