WIRED Advises We Submit to Tech’s Embrace

In two recent opinion pieces appearing in WIRED (March 10, 2014), the publication’s tech enthusiasts have seemingly taken on the tone of rape apologists or perhaps the tone of rapists and abusers themselves. The articles are titled: 

“Why You Should Embrace Surveillance, Not Fight It” 

“Tech That Tracks Your Every Move Can Be Convenient, Not Creepy” 

Kevin Kelly, author of the first article mentioned above as well as the book What Technology Wants, explains that “ubiquitous monitoring and surveillance will be the norm” and “there’s no stopping it”. There’s no stopping it so we might as well try to relax and enjoy it?

He assures the reader that “a massively surveilled world is not a world [he] would design” but also that “mass surveillance is coming either way.”  It’s coming either way, resisting would simply make things worse for us.

In a surprisingly honest assessment, Kelly explains that mass surveillance is inevitable because it “is the bias of digital technology”. This is a departure from the usual line offered by tech enthusiasts/apologists that technology is neutral and that its consequences—good or bad—hinge entirely on how people choose to use it. So for Kelly to explain that digital technology is biased toward mass surveillance and not really humor the idea that a free choice is being made therefore has the sound of an admission or confession.

Kelly argues that such mass surveillance would be preferable if it was reshaped into what he calls coveilance: a situation where everyone is watching everyone else as opposed to surveillance where one group monitors another.  Coveillance is mutual (but presumably not consensual) and consequently less onerous; it means we all keep each other in check.  Without trying to write satire, he defends coveillance by pointing out that “for eons humans have lived in tribes and clans where every act was open and visible and there were no secrets” and so consequently “there wouldn’t be a backlash against a circular world where we constantly spy on each other because we lived like this for a million years”. Mass surveillance is apparently just like band society!  And so if it’s done properly “it can feel comfortable.”

Moving on to Sean Madden’s article “Tech That Tracks Your Every Move Can Be Convenient, Not Creepy”.  Madden may indeed be less outwardly creepy than Kevin Kelly.  His article, on the surface, encourages tech designers to pay greater attention to consumer desires; there is less emphasis on the fact that we lack choices.  It’s a softer, savvier approach toward a similar end.

Madden rightly points out that in many contexts a high level of control can be perceived as creepy and thus alienating; the danger being that this might potentially cause consumers to withdraw.  In his example, current technology allows visitors to Disney World to share information so that costumed characters can greet children by name. But at least for the moment, this level of pseudo-familiarity may not be welcomed on city streets. What’s magical at Disney World is creepy elsewhere.

But Madden tips his hand when explaining that this is “just as much a design problem as it is an ethical one”.  I can’t help but read that as an attempt to reduce an ethical problem to a design problem; the technoculture consistently seeks technical answers to what are fundamentally not technical problems.

If this sounds like a less than charitable interpretation of Madden’s perspective, there is additional support for such an interpretation later in his article as he explains that “designers will have to make opt-in the norm, rather than opt-out. Designing to nudge patrons towards a behavior means demonstrating its value, not removing or stripping away alternatives.”

Designers therefore need to create an environment, set the mood, and cue the music in just the right way so as to “nudge patrons towards a [desired] behavior”.  The sophisticated Madden realizes that to get a “Yes” it is most important to give the impression that one is free to say “No” and that this is to be done “not just in words, but in visual elements, user experience, and more.”