Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

The Sharing-Culture Electorate

Introduction: Electability in the Internet Age

We spoke in class about the Louisiana governor who flippantly declared that the “only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” Of course today a politician (or anyone else for that matter) need not be caught in the act for her adversaries to use her digital footprint against her. Today, intimate details about our lives are shared online and peddled on the free market with relative ease and great frequency, sometimes with and sometimes without our consent. We already know about this trend and its interplay with the Fourth Amendment. But, in a time when political mudslinging need no longer rely on gossip and conjecture, and instead will inevitably arise from hard digital “evidence” like photos, videos, emails, and cookies, additional questions arise as to how the rampant sharing and collecting of digital information might affect how we choose our leaders.

In this era of hyperconnectivity, we are sharing more and more about ourselves, and our leaders and future leaders are sharing too. This might not be noteworthy if it were a grassroots phenomenon—there might not be anything inherently wrong with choosing to share more about ourselves. But that is of course not the case. To an extent, it is the entities that stand to benefit the most economically from our sharing that are inducing us to share more, most notably through consumer marketing campaigns and various sorts of cultural prodding. If this semi-Astroturf evolution results in a change in how we elect our leaders, perhaps by leading us to expect more sharing of private information from potential leaders, and if we never ourselves intended for this to happen, then we might be ceding more control over our destiny than we thought to entities that do not necessarily have our best interests at heart.

Step 1: The Astroturf Revolution

It is not news that the sharing-culture is a less-than-organic movement. That is to say, we have had a subtle but nagging encouragement from those who benefit most from our sharing.

Take, for example, a 30-second TV and Internet ad for Sprint. The spot seeks to convince the viewer that he has a duty to upload his life: “We can share every second,” it says. “I need to upload all of it.” Do I? The ad inspires a chicken and egg question—does the sentiment accurately reflect our wants and needs, or does it impose them upon us? I imagine the ad both reflects and imposes this desire to share, but I am more concerned about the latter. If our increasing engagement in online sharing and interaction is a sort of cultural evolution (consider that the word meme was initially coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to explain such phenomena) then perhaps it will not be long before an expectation of oversharing invades our political rituals as well.

In another example of corporate-induced online participation, a very revealing article outlines the origins of a recent and ubiquitous online fad involving self-made videos of a certain dance craze. The article points out that, contrary to its perception as a spontaneous bottom-up cultural phenomenon, the trend was actually the result of a heavily pre-meditated marketing attempt, ignited by business interests and then fueled and perpetuated by consumer participants.

This initial process is nothing new or shocking—academics like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer observed long ago how culture can be factory-produced to cultivate a false sense of need in consumers (and we talked extensively in class about our transition from a production economy to a consumer one). But to the extent that the sharing culture will next begin to alter the way in which we select our leaders, then it becomes even more important to be aware of who is partially behind it.

Step 2: The Share-or-Perish Ethos

The expectation of super-sharing in an election context has consequences. The sharing culture encourages us constantly to share photos and ideas, announce our locations, and intentionally or unintentionally reveal a great deal about ourselves through our online behavior. But more importantly, it encourages us to expect that type of behavior from others, including our current and future elected leaders. It seems possible that we will become conditioned to elect our leaders by a sort of share-or-perish ethos. While historically politicians hid their past "transgressions," the future may see a sharing-culture electorate that will demand, to some extent, full disclosure in exchange for a chance at forgiveness. At times this may help us filter out unwanted candidates. At other times, this may create false barriers to entry that disqualify good men and women who can legitimately effect positive change but who have even a modicum of controversy in their pasts. Public displays of repentance constitute a time-honored ritual in politics. But they are not always successful. What happens when good people are barred from leadership because their private thoughts have become a matter of public record? Worse yet, what happens when we begin to punish potential future leaders for not being over-sharers like the rest of us?

Conclusion: The Problem We Face

We are already aware of the influence that companies who collect our information have over our current leaders. But we should further consider that these companies might change how we govern ourselves by raising sharing expectations. The ability to exchange information and knowledge online has surely been beneficial to our democracy, but if we want to protect that benefit then the sharing culture and its sponsors should at least be under our microscopes. Until then, the best we can do is share our concern.

-- AndrewReich - 01 Apr 2013



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r5 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:44:39 - IanSullivan
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