Eben Moglen teaches us how not to be evil when data-mining
This is a guest post by Adam Obeng, a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology Department at Columbia University. His work encompasses computational social science, social network analysis and sociological theory (basically anything which constitutes an excuse to sit in front of a terminal for unadvisably long periods of time). This post is Copyright Adam Obeng 2013 and licensed under a (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License). Crossposted on adamobeng.com.
Eben Moglen’s delivery leaves you in no doubt as to the sincerity of this sentiment. Stripy-tied, be-hatted and pocked-squared, he took to the stage at last week’s IDSE Seminar Series event without slides, but with engaging — one might say, prosecutorial — delivery. Lest anyone doubt his neckbeard credentials, he let slip that he had participated in the development of almost certainly the first networked email system in the United States, as well as mentioning his current work for the Freedom Box Foundation and the Software Freedom Law Center.
A superorganism called humankind
The content was no less captivating than the delivery: we were invited to consider the world where every human consciousness is connected by an artificial extra-skeletal nervous system, linking everyone into a new superorganism. What we refer to as data science is the nascent study of flows of neural data in that network. And having access to the data will entirely transform what the social sciences can explain: we will finally have a predictive understanding of human behaviour, based not on introspection but empirical science. It will do for the social sciences what Newton did for physics.
The reason the science of the nervous system – “this wonderful terrible art” – is optimised to study human behaviour is because consumption and entertainment are a large part of economic activity. The subjects of the network don’t own it. In a society which is more about consumption than production, the technology of economic power will be that which affects consumption. Indeed, what we produce becomes information about consumption which is itself used to drive consumption. Moglen is matter-of-fact: this will happen, and is happening.
And it’s also ineluctable that this science will be used to extend the reach of political authority, and it has the capacity to regiment human behaviour completely. It’s not entirely deterministic that it should happen at a particular place and time, but extrapolation from history suggests that somewhere, that’s how it’s going to be used, that’s how it’s going to come out, because it can. Whatever is possible to engineer will eventually be done. And once it’s happened somewhere, it will happen elsewhere. Unlike the components of other super-organisms, humans possess consciousness. Indeed, it is the relationship between sociality and consciousness that we call the human condition. The advent of the human species-being threatens that balance.
The Oppenheimer moment
Moglen’s vision of the future is, as he describes it, both familiar and strange. But his main point, is as he puts it, very modest: unless you are sure that this future is absolutely 0% possible, you should engage in the discussion of its ethics.
First, when the network is wrapped around every human brain, privacy will be nothing more than a relic of the human past. He believes that privacy is critical to creativity and freedom, but really the assumption that privacy – the ability to make decisions independent of the machines – should be preserved is axiomatic.
What is crucial about privacy is that it is not personal, or even bilateral, it is ecological: how others behave determine the meaning of the actions I take. As such, dealing with privacy requires an ecological ethics. It is irrelevant whether you consent to be delivered poisonous drinking water, we don’t regulate such resources by allowing individuals to make desicions about how unsafe they can afford their drinking water to be. Similarly, whether you opt in or opt out of being tracked online is irrelevant.
The existing questions of ethics that science has had to deal with – how to handle human subjects – are of no use here: informed consent is only sufficient when the risks to investigating a human subject produce apply only to that individual.
These ethical questions are for citizens, but perhaps even more so for those in the business of making products from personal information. Whatever goes on to be produced from your data will be trivially traced back to you. Whatever finished product you are used to make, you do not disappear from it. What’s more, the scientists are beholden to the very few secretive holders of data.
Consider, says Moglen,the question of whether punishment deters crime: there will be increasing amounts of data about it, but we’re not even going to ask – because no advertising sale depends on it. Consider also, the prospect of machines training humans, which is already beginning to happen. The Coursera business model is set to do to the global labour market what Google did to the global advertising market: auctioning off the good learners, found via their learning patterns, to to employers. Granted, defeating ignorance on a global scale is within grasp. But there are still ethical questions here, and evil is ethics undealt with.
One of the criticisms often levelled at techno-utopians is that the enabling power of technology can very easily be stymied by the human factors, the politics, the constants of our species, which cannot be overwritten by mere scientific progress. Moglen could perhaps be called a a techno-dystopian, but he has recognised that while the technology is coming, inevitably, how it will affect us depends on how we decide to use it.
But these decisions cannot just be made at the individual level, Moglen pointed out, we’ve changed everything except the way people think. I can’t say that I wholeheartedly agree with either Moglen’s assumptions or his conclusions, but he is obviously asking important questions, and he has shown the form in which they need to be asked.
Another doubt: as a social scientist, I’m also not convinced that having all these data available will make all human behaviour predictable. We’ve catalogued a billion stars, the Large Hadron Collider has produced a hundred thousand million million bytes of data, and yet we’re still trying to find new specific solutions to the three-body problem. I don’t think that just having more data is enough. I’m not convinced, but I don’t think it’s 0% possible.
This post is Copyright Adam Obeng 2013 and licensed under a (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License).