In Cyberpunk we’re usually experiencing a world where high technology is more than a way of life. It’s everything. The world spins, and spins, and spins, because technology allows it. The history of how the world got to this place of all consuming, ever present, can’t live without it technology– is many times left out entirely, or covered in a paragraph or two of exposition. When did mega-corporations become more powerful than governments? How did humanity get there and what was the journey like? Are we on that path now?
Mass government surveillance keeps us safe. Purchasing histories, gathered by credit card companies, is pumped through machine learning algorithms to detect and protect us from fraud.
Bots scrape and aggregate our public records, social networking pages, and dating site profiles. Websites make this information freely available, or hide it behind paywalls that only the highest bidders can penetrate. Many of the applications on our phones have access to Wi-Fi, our photos, messages and more. Companies use this access to send a continuous flow of data about each of us to third party data mining companies even when we aren’t actively using the application. These third party companies live to market. Their sole purpose in our world is to tell us what we need, and where we can get it.
Corporations and the apps and services they offer, know our business. They need that information if they are going to solve the everyday problems we face, and streamline the everyday tasks we want to automate. Machine learning, which is at the core of automated assistants like Siri and Alexa and OK Google, require immense amounts of data to offer relevant information. They need access to your email and your calendar so that they can remind you of packages arriving and appointments that are upcoming.
There are inherent privacy concerns to these services having access to our data, but the upside is immense. Our books and music and text messages and passwords are all synced across devices. Our calendar is available where ever we need it. Our phones offer us driving directions and before we ask for them. We can order paper towels, from the shower, with our voices.
Social Networking keeps us connected to each other and the world in a way that we have never been before in the history of our species. Books like Feed by M.T. Anderson touch on what an over abundance of external stimuli might do to our interactions with each other in the long run.
A constant stream of GPS data from our cell phones enables Google to explicitly tailor quality search results for each and every one of us. Cloud services allow us to backup our entire digital lives, saving us from ever again losing a photo, email or file. Even if you have your GPS turned off, the Wi-Fi access you granted the applications on your phone are using the wireless access points around you to geolocate you without GPS.
Privacy policies and terms of service–that we almost never read–may grant permission for our information to be utilized by these corporations for marketing and advertising purposes. Much of the data that is gathered is aggregated for the purposes of anonymizing the users it was gathered from. This practice is put in place to protect the privacy of a consumer.
Sociological studies are performed under the nose of consumers on dating and social networking sites with the aim of better understanding behavioral influences for the betterment of science… and marketing. These experiments, often benign, seek to test our responses to various stimuli (or the lack thereof).
Personalized content curation, based on preferences and reading history, protects us from seeing anything we won’t like, or might find disagreeable or upsetting.
Facial recognition software is used to track down criminals, find missing persons, and prevent terrorist attacks. It’s used to help you tag photos on Facebook. It’s used to identify anonymous strangers on the train.
The thread here is convenience. That is the road we are on. We pay for these services with our data for the sake of convenience. We want our location services on so that we can get the curated search results and Google Now cards and Siri driving directions.
The hum of global marketing machines grows ever louder as it consumes the always increasing stream of bits that make up our digital lives. Retargeting campaigns follow us across the web, reminding us (ironically) of the Minority Report Blu Ray we abandoned in our Amazon Cart.
Technology is our best friend, our savior. It is our enemy and our detractor. It lifts us to heights we could never hope to reach alone, and threatens our ability to think critically. As often as it informs us objectively, it informs us subjectively. Technology is not inherently good, or bad. It doesn’t pick sides (yet) and it doesn’t have feelings (again, yet). Technology has no agenda but the agenda it has been given.
Corporations continue to grow, fueled by our data. They know us better and better every day. We trust them. We stand in line for days for their products. We all but pray to them.
Is it really that big a leap from the world of today to a dystopian tomorrow?