“Big Tech” as a concept and an ubiquitous way of life is relatively new. Google was founded in 1998, Facebook in 2004, and Amazon is comparably ancient, being founded in 1994 (although it was a while before it got into tech). The current group of college students is one of the last that will remember what it was like before everyone had a computer in their pocket. Everyone after us will have grown up around some form of personal computer (smartphone, tablets, etc.).
There’s been a lot of ink spilled about the psychological and social effects of this, but one thing I think bears looking at is what the effect of a small group of companies controlling and watching nearly everything we do does to us as a society.
There’s something quaint about early 2000s spy and sci-fi thrillers. A lot of them put forth the idea that our lives were being watched and controlled by some shadowy organization. When the heroes discovered this, they were able to reveal the subterfuge and the people would rise up and rebel against this invasion of privacy.
What’s interesting is this did happen to some extent. In the past ten years, whistleblowers and reporters have exposed the amount of blatant spying Big Tech has been doing on its customers. We’ve come into college with the understanding that our phones are at all times listening to what we say. I just have to say, “Hey Siri,” to test that.
So where’s that uprising? One thing that the writers of a decade ago couldn’t have predicted is that all of this listening makes our lives extremely convenient. Sure, Big Tech is watching everything you do online, but in exchange you get information on stories and products you actually want or deals that you wouldn’t have found otherwise. Sure, your smart assistants can hear everything you say, but you can send a text hands free or listen to the daily headlines as you eat breakfast with just a simple command.
The flip side then becomes, what do we actually lose to this? We lose our privacy, but most people don’t see much problem with that. I’ve talked to several people whose position is “Well I don’t have anything to hide, so what does it matter?” I’ve thought that as well. Why does it matter that Facebook knows I’m into board games? That’s not going to ruin my life by any means.
However, recent events have shown that this has become more malicious than it first seemed. Recent events such as the Brexit vote and the 2016 election both relied heavily on psychological profiles and laser focused marketing to nudge people just enough to get the result those with the deepest pockets wanted. Is that moral? If someone knows you well enough to present you with only the information they know will swing you their way, is it even a choice anymore?
These are heavy questions to consider and they’re going to get even harder to confront as time goes by. The more we let Big Tech integrate with our lives, the harder it becomes to separate ourselves from it if we ever do decide that enough is enough.
Right now, the best thing to do is be aware of how you interact with your technology and more importantly, how it interacts with you. Manipulation works best when we remain unaware of it. So keep your eyes open.
Jeffrey Birch is a senior from Wichita studying accounting.