What a difference a few years can make. About 18 months ago Edward Snowden started exposing the astonishing reach of state-sanctioned surveillance into our everyday lives. Revelations of mass email and phone interception, social media profiling and data mining confirmed the Internet generation’s darkest fears: an all-knowing and unrestrained Big Brother is watching our every move. In the process, the man TIME magazine dubbed the dark prophet triggered a much-needed global debate about the necessary checks and balances of the surveillance state in the information age.
But all of this is so 2013.
A quantum shift in technological change is underway that makes the debate on metadata surveillance look antiquated. The breathtaking fusion of the cloud, big data, genomics, robotics, artificial intelligence and wearables is changing the rules of the game. Consider that within five years the human race will collectively generate more than 40 zettabytes of data a day. To get your head around this figure try counting every grain of sand in the world and then multiply them seventyfold. We are moving from the surveillance state to the Quantified Society.
What is the Quantified Society? Quite simply, it is the unblinking, unrelenting and uncensored exposure to systems and devices designed to monitor and measure every aspect of human existence. In some ways it is like Bentham’s Panopticon wherein we eagerly volunteer our information in return for access to (near) total awareness. It thrives on our smart phones, smart scales, GoPros and Fitbits. It digests the digital shadow of our loved ones on social media. It follows our teens and their online tribes. We tolerate the quantification of ourselves for very human reasons: vanity, a sense of belonging, and convenience.
And as with previous generations roiled by revolution, it is exceedingly difficult to recognize the transformative consequences of disruptive change in real time. We are mesmerized by the dazzling potential of new technology, yet somehow unable to fully grasp just how fundamentally it is altering norms and institutions that took centuries to evolve.
Privacy is not the only casualty of Moore’s law. The way we make choices, exert our agency, and interact with one another is being re-coded and rewired. As noted by sociologist Neil Postman over two decades ago — new technologies alter the structure of our interests, the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols, the things we think with. And they alter the nature of our community, the arena in which thoughts develop.
The Quantified Society is giving rise to a spectacular array of innovations, some more benign than others. Gene-based therapies are evolving at five times the pace of Moore’s Law and changing the face of pharmacology and health care. In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service announced that it intends to sequence the genome of more than 100,000 patients. Across the western world, the costs of sequencing are declining and opening the door to programming out congenital disease. Bespoke treatment for everything from cancer to infertility is emerging, available to those with the means to acquire them.
Meanwhile, in the wake of highly publicized instances of excessive violence, police departments across North America and Western Europe are rapidly adopting wearable cameras. Predictive analytics are being used to track hot spots and hot people with extraordinary precision from Kabul to Kalamazoo. For example, in Canada social services data is being used preemptively to identify “pre-criminals” and intervene before they enter the criminal justice system. Citizens are only dimly aware of their rights in this fast evolving information environment.
And the Quantified Society is hardly confined to the North. Across the Americas and increasingly in Africa and Asia, community groups and activist organizations are also active participants. They are experimenting with digital surveys, social media, satellites and drones to report on crime and human rights violations from violence against children to genocide. A new generation of digital humanitarians are emerging made-up of hardened veteran aid workers as well as tech savvy college students. In the face of digital attacks from state agencies to cyber cartels, civil society groups are fighting back online and off.
An axiom of the Quantified Society is that it is global and highly networked. Stem-cell therapy and medical tourism is available from Moscow to Seoul. CCTV cameras are now almost as common in Beijing as in London, the most surveilled city on earth. The expansion of smart cities in the north and south is bringing the promise of a Singapore-like benevolent authoritarianism closer to reality than ever before. There is now talk of big data eugenics, with American and Chinese firms busily sequencing thousands of people with “very-high IQs.” Meanwhile, for the rest of us, the market is starting to reflect insurance premiums adjusted for genetically-based disease.
No one knows exactly where the Quantified Society is headed or who is in control. The de-leveraging of rich economies of the north and the inexorable shift of the global economy south and eastwards presages a decline in the former’s political and moral influence. Consequently, ethical decisions on the future application of these new technologies are not the preserve of a small clutch of nation states, nor should they be. Major decisions are being made in laboratories around the world in what amounts to an ethical bazaar, with far-reaching consequences for all of humanity. Caution is warranted, but is anyone listening?
Snowden successfully prised open the lid — though only just — of the bubbling cauldron that is the Quantified Society. He showed how entities such as the National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ are attempting to capture a sizable, and yet still narrow slice of our ever-expanding data universe. What the ensuing debate on state-led surveillance is missing, however, is virtually everything else. The new global zettabyte economy is not the preserve of a single state. And what happens in this space matters, with implications on our day-to-day lives and freedom
There are no simple answers. But whatever you do, be prepared to brace on impact.