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.