Three Paradoxes of the Internet Age – Part Three

The myth of personal empowerment takes root amidst a massive loss of personal control.

Social technologies are cloaked in a rhetoric of liberation (customers are in control, the internet fosters democracy, social technologies propagate truth etc.) that tend to obscure the fact that never before have we handed so much personal information over in exchange for so little in return.

As we move from the “web of information” to the “web of people” (aka the Social Web) the output of all of this social participation is massive dossiers on individual behavior (your social network profiles, photos, location, status updates, searches etc.) and social activity.
This loss of control over personal information is on a collision course with the law of unintended consequences: MIT’s Project Gaydar can spot your sexual preference by your social ties, Facebook checks are occurring customs and every quiz you take on Facebook delivers a shocking amount of personally identifiable information to third parties.

Amidst this barrage of good news for how much power we wield in the transaction of commerce one has to wonder if we are giving away something quite precious in the bargain.

Here are links to the previous posts in this series:
One: More access to information doesn’t bring people together, often it isolates us.
Two: Individual perception of increased choice can occur while the overall choice pool is getting smaller

What are other paradoxes of the Internet Age? What did I get wrong above?

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  • http://640k.ca 640k

    In response to article one (which link is 404ing for me), there was a recent post to the NYT blogs reporting on a survey that seemed to indicate that technology users are more social and less isolated than technology abstainers.

  • http://filter--blog.blogspot.com/ michael holloway

    640k

    “..a survey that seemed to indicate that technology users are more social and less isolated than technology abstainers.”

    This rings with my take on #1; that the culture is slowly re-embedding*, or catching up with the technology.

    *The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi

  • http://www.johnsumser.com John Sumser

    One of the most misunderstood aspects of the internet is the way that this global tool set reinforces local things. Rather than a tool that integrates, the internet is a force for balkanization. The more you can know about your neighborhood, the less you need to know about elsewhwere.

  • Jason Frydakis

    I agree with your point that “one has to wonder if we are giving away something quite precious in the bargain” but at the same time, let me add that as we rapidly move towards the so called new digital age we have to remember that this “new age” is nothing new to the so called digital natives! All we did by no e-means, will be “digital for them!

    Regarding, access to information and the chances that, an already established, Social Web doesn’t bring people together but often it isolates us, there will still be a debate on this. Just recently I was going through the PEW INTERNET study on “Social Isolation and New Technology” http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/18–Social-Isolation-and-New-Technology.aspx arguing that finally we seem to be more social by engaging with/via the Social Web.

    More to come I guess! :)

  • http://www.michaelbernstein.com Michael R. Bernstein

    I don’t think you got anything wrong, but you missed mentioning how the massive dossiers you note are being concentrated in the hands of very few players.

    Even given the SPOF implied for each individual user, it would be a very different situation if we had choice and portability for our ‘dossier’ host, but we don’t. Instead, this is turning into a winner-take-all race, with the gorrilas jockeying for position to be the host of *everyone’s* data.

    I’m not sure this counts as an independent paradox, but perhaps this is worthy as a corolary: “Even as the requirements for participating as a full peer in the internet ecosystem become ever more affordable and accessible, we are seeing ever greater centralization and concentration of power into fewer hands.”

  • http://www.michaelbernstein.com Michael R. Bernstein

    I don’t think you got anything wrong, but you missed mentioning how the massive dossiers you note are being concentrated in the hands of very few players.

    Even given the SPOF implied for each individual user, it would be a very different situation if we had choice and portability for our ‘dossier’ host, but we don’t. Instead, this is turning into a winner-take-all race, with the gorillas jockeying for position to be the host of *everyone’s* data.

    I’m not sure this counts as an independent paradox, but perhaps this is worthy as a corollary: “Even as the requirements for participating as a full peer in the internet ecosystem become ever more affordable and accessible, we are seeing ever greater centralization and concentration of power into fewer hands.”

  • http://www.opposableplanets.com Joshua-Michéle Ross

    Michael -
    You raise a good point – and one that I covered in an earlier post, “Captivity of the Commons”: http://radar.oreilly.com/2009/05/captivity-of-the-commons.html

    Jason – I am lobbying for a balanced consideration of the consequences of a networked society. I am not making the claim that the Internet is all one thing (freedom, diversity etc.) or another (isolating, panoptical etc.). I am making the point that as a powerful communications technology it holds the potential for both. Generally I think we are exposed to the positive side far more often than being asked to consider how we build in structural protections for privacy, anonymous civic action and the right to control our personal data.
    To your point about digital natives – I am in full agreement. However just because digital natives are fluent in the use of new technology does not mean that they are immune to the misuse of it.

  • Jason Frydakis

    @Joshua

    thumbs up on your point for a “balanced consideration of the consequences of a networked society”.

    Let me add a point on the Amount of Information generated by this Networked Society. What will be very interesting is to see how this will progress and how and who will be “organizing the world’s information”.Tim Berners-Lee mentioned recently, “some social web “systems” end up with undue control over comms (and info I say) cause they aren’t open to other.”

    At the end of your post you mention the “misuse of it” which in my opinion brings us to the issue of Internet Legislation and Censorship and how we define “misuse” in some cases.

    I expect O’Reilly has a lot to offer towards this direction so I will be “watching this space”!!!

  • http://filter--blog.blogspot.com/ michael holloway

    I don,t know (given up so much for so little in return), the Librarian wanted my Address!

    But seriously,

    Took the ACLU Quiz and shared it. Nice. A window pops up and a list of stuff about me and my friends scrolls by…

    It doesn’t ask you to open up your ‘friends list’ by the way, in case anyone was reticent to take the quiz.

    I can see a time when the political ground shifts, and data out there about one is used to for political purposes.

    In the McCarthyism of the 1950′s the FBI had surprisingly good data about who knew whom and even who had attended what meetings. The lot of “fellow travellers” were often the same as for those who had signed communist party membership cards. (Black-listing and the end of their careers for doing nothing other than assembling – which was and is protected in the bill of rights)

    The polgrum against the left – lead by a US Senator and that went on for ten years, was a time of madness and paranoia I think was related to an Atomic Zeitgeist – a shadow on the public consciousness following the raising of most of Europe and the atomizing of two Japanese cities at the end of WW ll.

    A similarly ‘powerful’ piece of technology begins to be completed now… .

    So, Joshua-Michéle Ross, you’ve finally wiped that Kool-aid grin off my face Sir. :-(

    mh

  • http://www.michaelbernstein.com Michael R. Bernstein

    Here’s another paradox: “The digital divide is widening even as ever more people have access to the tools of participation”.