Tao of the Zentropist

June 26, 2013

Welcome to Surveillance Society

Governments and private industry have a vested interest in knowing what we are all about – should this come as a surprise to anyone in this age? The fact that Edward Snowden has publicly leaked information about the scope and substance of at least some (and perhaps not all) of the U.S. government’s ongoing programs will perhaps spur some much needed debate on the subject, but for those who find this revelatory, I would point to the public disclosure of ECHELON more than a decade ago as indicative of what direction the world is heading. Quite frankly, my own personal operating assumption has been that digital channels as well as voice communications have been subject to intercept and monitoring for a long time now; the only question was, how often was this capability actually used? It’s pretty disturbing that the default setting appears to be to capture and archive everything, in effect establishing the boundaries of the “haystack” before searching for “the needle.” And with questionable oversight and accountability, the potential for abuse is staggering, even as we are told that sprawling data collection is necessary to “keep us safe.”

BIG DATA AND ALL ITS IMPLICATIONS

These days, it seems that if you don’t have a substantial digital footprint, you don’t exist, and while privacy advocates might relish this, given the convenience as well as outright necessity in some instances of maintaining an online presence it’s increasingly hard to do. For example, business networking and simple prudence tend to enforce the notion that a professional profile on LinkedIn is a necessity to find or maintain employment. If you don’t have a profile, you risk being seen as hopelessly outdated or “out of touch,” and even if happily employed (and this includes owning your own business), many customers and more importantly, prospective customers expect to be able to find relevant information about you without expending too much effort. Public profiles are in part seen as a means of validation and possible future recruitment (and prospecting for those selling goods and services), as well as a tool for networking and business intelligence gathering.

As consumers, we tend to enjoy the benefits of data analysis and relevancy; the recommendation engines of leading commerce sites are based not only on our past purchase history but our browsing activity, comments, and even the profiles of other people suspected of harboring similar interests and habits online.  While this is arguably a convenience when we are in shopping and a way to introduce us to products that we might otherwise miss mode (as well as a great way for companies to encourage spur-of-the-moment consumption to boost their bottom line), this data trail follows us and can quickly start to define us.

ONCE YOU’RE IN THE SYSTEM, YOU’RE IN FOR LIFE

Another issue to consider is that once we have deliberately or inadvertently established certain patterns and behavioral attributes online, deviation from these norms could very well trigger algorithms which flag us for closer investigation. For example, if an individual goes from very active and robust use of email, social media and other online activity, and then abruptly trails off, who is to say that this doesn’t trigger certain surveillance tripwires? While an abrupt curtailing or termination of such activity might have very innocent explanations, it could also signal more serious concerns from the perspective of a government or corporation. From the corporate point of view, has this consumer lost interest in their offerings? Maybe it’s time to send coupons or other promotional material to re-spark interest. From the government point of view, is this individual now incapacitated, deceased or going to ground for perhaps more nefarious purposes? Would it be prudent to inquire into the individual’s health records, financial institutions or credit card providers to see what recent activity (or lack thereof) is revealed?

It has been observed that as surveillance grows and becomes more acceptable (or even palatable) to the populace, it has a corrosive effect on liberty. Robust access to behavioral data is a sure path to predictive profiling, and the potential for misuse or worse, misinterpretation of the data must give one pause, not to mention the ramifications of theft of such data by hackers or unscrupulous parties acting from not only outside the system, but possibly within it.

HOW DOES THIS BODE FOR AUTHENTICITY?

In social media and marketing, “authenticity” has become a buzzword du jour, used to convey the sense of “keeping it real” in one’s interactions with the outside world. I’ve historically felt that for those who feel the need to constantly harp on this subject, it raises into question how much of their authenticity is genuine and how much is manufactured, sort of like the illusion that is “reality TV.” Perhaps more insidiously, the more that one reveals to the world at large, the more this data can be mined, aggregated and analyzed not only in an effort to manipulate the individual’s consumer choices, but even to influence and to some degree control behavior and attitudes as well. While some might see this as paranoid or alarmist, social media accounts are a treasure trove of information which people voluntarily populate, requiring data collection and analysis, and perhaps occasional phishing attacks and social engineering to further exploit.

Ultimately, technology has enabled the Pandora’s Box of mythology to become reality, and like all things, has brought both welcome progress as well as arguably less beneficial developments to our world. We are fast learning, even in countries with democratically elected governments, that whether or not the political elite truly represent the “will of the people” is open to debate, and furthermore, that the vast bureaucracies and sprawling public and private apparatus established to enable modern societies is subject to exploitation from both within and without. Any thinking person who is not at least a little bit unsettled by the state of things deserves to realize that the new boss is exactly the same as the old boss…

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May 17, 2009

Writers Facing the Double-Edged Blade of Technology

It’s hardly an original observation to acknowledge that technology is a double-edged blade, capable of delivering enormous benefits to users when properly employed, yet also facilitating the destruction of careers, professions, cultures and even economies as either an intended or unintended consequence of its utilization. Certainly, the “flattening” of the world which Thomas Friedman has persuasively written about for several years now could not have happened without the build-out of technological infrastructure during the 1990’s, which has in turn facilitated the off-shoring (a sub-set of traditional “outsourcing” to freelancers) of many jobs which were once performed domestically.

This off-shoring trend has been great for low-cost nations such as India and China and parts of Eastern and Central Europe, but not so great for developed nations such as the United States, where for better or worse, many of us have grown accustomed to a certain standard of living. Some might call it opulent, some might call it irresponsible (and in hindsight, clearly unsustainable), and arguments about carbon footprints aside, many Americans, irrespective of educational levels or actual skills, have come to feel entitled to a rather free-wheeling approach to spending money and accumulating material goods and comforts.

Like many others, I’m a member of the business social network LinkedIn, and belong to a number of “special interest” groups. While the global recession is hurting a lot of people in a lot of nations, there’s a lot of bewilderment and pain evident among white-collar professionals, many of them well-educated, suddenly realizing that somewhere offshore, there is a counterpart willing to do the same work for less money. Sometimes for far less money. This has impacted the professional writing and communications/media community (i.e. journalists, copywriters, marketers, consultants, authors of fiction and non-fiction alike) especially hard from what I can see. For anyone dealing primarily in intellectual property or work that does not depend upon a physical component necessitating locality (such as one form or another of manual labor or public/private service), the Internet is at once both a channel and tool to cultivate new opportunities once ignored due to distance, yet also increases competition exponentially.

Understand that capital, like energy, follows the path of least resistance. Those who grew comfortable pulling in solidly middle class, if not upper tier incomes, and more often than not assumed debt loads to finance these lifestyles, have been completely sand-bagged upon learning that they are indeed replaceable. Such knowledge ranks right up there with the realization of one’s mortality and seems to carry the same intensity of emotional baggage.

Writing has always been a profession that many people devalue and largely dismiss, since after all, anyone that has any degree of literacy “can write,” so those that earn a living doing this are not typically viewed as performing a service which is magical or mysterious. Brain surgery is mysterious. Building a bridge or building is mysterious. Even composing a symphony is mysterious. Writing a script or novel? Hah. Swing a dead cat in Los Angeles or New York and you’ll take out an aspiring screenwriter and/or novelist without doubt.

Blogging and “Internet journalism” are rapidly displacing traditional media in terms of audience reach and relevancy, and with the apparent decline in journalistic standards and integrity, the line between professional and amateur journalist is increasingly blurred.  Journalists and other writers accustomed to being paid by the word for print publication are now horrified to discover that rates that in some instances could formerly exceed $1.00 per word for a particular piece of work are now dropping to mere pennies per word, since in a universe where one’s work is now simply “content” and SEO (search engine optimization) is more important than a clever turn of phrase or providing the reader with insightful analysis or thought-provoking ideas, most publishers don’t correlate high quality output with traffic. Rather than pursue or encourage excellence (and pay rates in accord with this outcome), there’s a marked tendency to settle for “good enough,” which is a rather low-lying bar these days.

Writers that wish to “fight back” face an uphill battle, but not one which is unwinnable. Creating and marketing the writer “as a brand” is an absolute necessity, and using digital media to find and connect with an audience is vital to the successful prosecution of this strategy. The plethora of digital channels for delivery of one’s work has lowered the barriers to entry, and is likely going to make many traditional publishers largely irrelevant in the coming years. To be sure, there is still prestige associated with having one’s work published in print by a major name (be it a newspaper, book publisher, etc.), but as more consumers turn to digital channels to consume “content,” I suspect the distinction will fade. Portents of this are already appearing. For example, Amazon’s popular Kindle book-reader will allow bloggers to post their work directly to the unit, which in turn gives equal weight (in terms of presentation) to an undiscovered writer working in obscurity as it does to a best-selling author with a major publishing deal. The difference between them (which is clearly not insignificant) is audience reach, and the willingness of readers to pay for the enjoyment of accessing that writer’s work.

If this global recession teaches us anything, the lesson that we can take nothing for granted must be first and foremost. For those that use the written word to connect with others, whether through articles or columns appearing in traditional print media, advertising, film and television, or digital media, we must be cognizant that if we wish to earn a living from our work, we had better deliver a meaningful or otherwise valuable experience to the end user/consumer, or we will quickly be rendered irrelevant.  After all, plenty of others are more than willing to take up the mantle, and far too many will happily do so for free…

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