Paul May

Paying for the Web we Need

10 December 2013

I probably reacted to the Edward Snowden revelations in the same way that a lot of people did. Not with surprise that mass surveillance happens, but that it happens so completely and so effectively.

Months later, I’ve factored the revelations into my opinion of how governments tend to behave (slightly more competent, a lot less cautious), but otherwise, my behaviour remains unchanged.

The web that I use, and have helped to build, is one where acceptance of minute surveillance of my activities is a pre-condition for the use of the most basic services.

This web has laid the technical foundations for mass surveillance, but I believe that it has also laid the psychological/ethical groundwork for the acceptance of surveillance as just another facet of my daily life. (Why wouldn’t governments put me under surveillance when I’ve accepted that companies are allowed to, in exchange for keeping track of my friends’ birthdays.)

Technology introduces biases in the types of things it makes more or less easy. Things that are easy become normal. Things that are difficult become other. The Snowden leaks are the clearest demonstration of this at scale. Remaining private is difficult, and so demanding privacy now would disconnect me from the majority.

More importantly maybe, the leaks show me that technology has drastically skewed my sense of what is acceptable. I can’t help but fit the NSA’s activities into the moral framework I’ve built up around targeted advertising. And they are certainly not equivalent.

It’d be impractical, and lonely, to move my online life over to services that aren’t funded via surveillance-marketing, but I can take a small step by paying for more parts of the web that I value in cold hard cash.

I can also try to evaluate things that might be technologically similar, but ethically different, with a much more critical eye.

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  • Paul May is a researcher, interaction designer, and technologist from Dublin, Ireland. He is currently working with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on smart health applications.