Frustrating technologies: #IoT, anti-#nudge, and the perversion of #democracy

The Internet of Things, and connected devices more broadly, promises a wonderful world of interactions.

But for every upside there is a contrasting downside.  For every side of a satellite that shows itself to the light, there is the dark side too.

Recently, I have continued my thoughts on nudge (here and here), and a counterpoint I have termed anti-nudge: nudge is the legitimate use of the corresponding theory and practice to move lots of people in societally productive and constructive directions, both efficiently and safely.  Anti-nudge, meanwhile, is when those who do what they do end up choosing nudge theory and practice as their preferred tools, partly because these allow them to pervert the direction of Western liberal democracies without taking ownership, and partly because … well … simply, they can.

For anything of the kind to be considered nudge, the ideas of legitimacy and trust are really important.  For anything, for any organisations or individuals or networks, where trust and legitimacy are found wanting I think we must then use the term anti-nudge.

One idea I touched on in previous articles becomes significant in today’s stream of ideas.  I keep on coming back to the concept of Western liberal democracy, and whilst this opens me up to charges of cultural-centricism, I have to say:

  1. this is the society I grew up in;
  2. these are the principles I have always lived my life by;
  3. such tenets and underlying assumptions have become stronger in my being – have, in fact, become things I feel more and more obliged to defend – the older I have got.

This, then, may be no defence at all with respect to the charge of cultural-centricism I accept could be the case.  On the other hand, there is a tendency I have fallen foul of all my time on this rock – a tendency of all of us who have grown up fascinated by the “before and after” of the Internet and the worldwide web – to have an opinion on everything and anything.

So equally, then, the older I get, the more I refuse to make this mistake – even as temptation still strives to beat its ugly way to my complicated mind.

What, today, I do want to underline with respect to Western liberal democracy is the importance of both history’s moving of the masses – here, I would remit us again to nudge theory and practice, as a modern tool to achieve, to socially engineer in legitimate ways, this goal – and the impact concrete individuals can have on the direction which such societies end up traversing.

Clearly, technologies and philosophies such as the Internet of Things will only build on and drive further the effect which the tech and software-engineering sectors have had, outwith traditional legislatures, on the constitutional structures – the permissions, the things we can do and can’t do online and offline – that shape 21st century society.

As a result, moving the masses is much talked about and discussed: most recently, we had stories about how the tech corporation Apple was remotely slowing down older phones, having taken a unilateral decision to do so without consulting its users – primarily, on the understanding that it knows best.

This is the Internet of Things acting remotely, already: this is the Internet of Mass Movements acting out its gameplans, already: and so we are but one short step, I think, from the Internet of Mind Games.

What do I mean by the Internet of Mind Games?  If Western liberal democracy got anything right, it was in arguing the importance of the individual.  In history, the masses are obviously important.  But at key moments, individuals have also made a huge difference to histories and their directions.

Let us accept that the masses have been massaged and poked and pushed and redirected since propaganda and advertising and government edicts were a thing.

But let’s also accept that there has – for a considerable time – been sufficient information out there for illegitimate authorities (state-sponsored, private, criminal, illegal, a-legal, and zemiological even) not only to target the masses as masses, but to target the masses as discrete individuals.

If to this already considerable set of abilities we now add the connectednesses of the Internet of Things, where our smartphone IDs are running and managing remotely our homes, our cars, our children and elders – our very lives in fact, our very aspirations – the opportunities for doing as much bad as good exist simultaneously: and especially when, in the modern Western security state, the definitions of what is actually good and what is actually bad are so up for perpetual definition, debate and disagreement.

Imagine the scenario, if you will: an up-and-coming young woman, bright, emotionally intelligent, of a radical background, radical in the sense of progressively righteous in the most inclusive sorts of ways, moves into a new living-space in the town all her metadata suggests she wants to make anti-establishment waves.

We know her political leanings and loyalties: she writes and blogs and comments and tweets frequently.

We know her weaknesses and penchants for modern devices: she loves to get publicly pissy when things go electronically wrong.

We know she doesn’t have a constant partner: it’s her choice to be free of such ties, and she declaims her sexuality proudly and wonderfully.

We also know by now, however, without her having explicitly said as much, she will in the future be a mover in what could easily be a brand new way of doing society.

She could quite easily be that figure who changes everything: who combines seamlessly with the interests and mores of her generation, and at some point down the line wins it all.

If people-watching in politics – almost grooming, clearly a self-interested redirection in some way or another – has happened already, has been happening before the Internet of Mind Games came along, just imagine the functionality for initiating – from the context of criminality and manifest anti-democracy – the anti-nudge tactics I have begun to describe on these pages.

One easy tactic to implement could be as follows: an almost audit-less trail of hacks into home appliances, carefully ranged over a period of six months, where in her brand new living-space everything just starts to go wrong.  Frustrating moments of increasing anxiety, angry customer phonecalls one after the other, a growing sense of impotence in the life of a woman surely destined for the stars … this, and so much more, could be effected from now on in by any organisation or network, to any individual targeted as brightly up-and-coming.

How to shape the world: not only the masses any more but also the individuals, the concrete individuals, who make up the masses we used to exclusively focus on.

Or did we?  They do say there’s nothing new under the Sun.

Who’s to say there ever was?


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