News that the US National Security Agency has collected data from major tech firms makes Tom Chatfield wonder: is today’s internet the one we wanted, or deserve?

In the early days of the web, much of the debate around technology’s opportunities and hazards focused on anonymity. Online, as Peter Steiner’s iconic 1993 cartoon for the New Yorker put it, nobody knew you were a dog: you could say what you liked, try out different selves, and build new identities. Privacy was what you enjoyed by default, and breached at your own convenience.

The last decade has seen a startling shift from these origins. As internet-connected technologies have become ever more widespread, the fantasy of a virtual realm set apart from reality has given way to something more messily human. Today, our digital shadows cleave ever-more-closely to our real-world identities, reflecting our interests, activities and relationships. Humanity has flooded online, and largely chosen an augmented rather than an alternate life.

In this context, privacy is not so much a matter of secrecy as of control. From medical details to birthdays, hobbies and hang-ups, there’s little that we don’t reveal in some context. Instead of sketching second selves, most of us share personal information in order to gain value from countless digital services, and expect in return to control how this information is used – and for those using it to do so appropriately and securely.

So, what should one make of the news that major tech firms may have been passing some of this information on to the US National Security Agency (NSA)? Even before the so-called Prism scandal and its associated revelations from whistle-blower and ex-CIA employee Edward Snowden, we had misguided views. Did we really expect businesses whose models are based on gathering unprecedented quantities of data not to squeeze every last drop from their assets; or for the lifelong accumulation of online data about our every action not to hollow out hopes of control? Could we ever have hoped for governments and intelligence services to resist tapping the allure of troves into which so many have freely confessed so much?

The shock of Snowden’s story has partly been offset by “I-told-you-so” accounts along the lines of the above. Coupled to this, however, is an assumption that I find troubling: that the relentless gathering of personal data is simply the nature of online services, and something we must either accept wholesale, or reject alongside technology itself.

The confusion, here, is mistaking a particular business model based on advertising and data aggregation for an eternal truth about “the internet” – as if that existed in any coherent enough form to have a single purpose. It’s a confusion that many of the world’s most successful online businesses have colluded in, and with good reason. For a company whose profitability is based on gathering as much data as possible, the freedom that matters most is the freedom to provide as much information as possible – and for this information to be pooled and preserved indefinitely. The value of being free from the need to do this is anathema.

Blind faith

For the social psychologist Aleks Krotoski, writing in her new book Untangling the Web, “it may be that our digital shadows will become our marks of trust and reliability; to have none will be a sign that we have something we’re ashamed of, something to hide.” Data gathering therefore becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if enough people insist on its power and indispensability, opting out is no longer a straightforward option.

The PRISM scandal suggests just how deeply embedded the cult of data has become at the highest levels of government and national security. In a data-hungry world, even those who are supposed to be guarding liberty seem to believe that the gathering, preservation, cross-referencing and mining of data is the future’s only recipe for civic life and national security alike. It’s a case of escalation on all sides, with every innovation a further opportunity to keep track of everyone and everything in the name of a nebulous good.

If there’s one lesson to be taken from the recent headlines, it’s that this recipe is flawed on every level. Projects like Prism reflect a faith in data that misses the point of what a supple or useful understanding of human-machine interactions looks like – and that blithely equates progress and justice with endlessly accumulating information.

As author Evgeny Morozov dryly tweeted during the coverage of Snowden’s actions, “It's kind of hard to accept the argument that surveillance and big data work when NSA fails to watch and profile its own employees.” Although they may wield tremendous and alarmingly unaccountable power, the National Security Agency and its ilk are not puppet masters holding the key to modern living. The accumulating impact of so-called big data will be both profound and profoundly unpredictable; but one illusion that urgently needs dismantling is that it will “work” only as anticipated, or that it renders other debates redundant.

Unintended consequences are the rule rather than the exception of vast systems, and the internet is vaster than most: a network of networks already far distant from the last century’s visions of virtuality. Is today’s net the one we wanted, or that we deserve? It’s no one thing, of course. More than ever, though, the freedom to use and choose its best possibilities rests on asking such questions, and on challenging the belief that the “logic” of one promiscuous set of imperatives defines our online destiny.

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