Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
-- EricSantos - 15 May 2015

Nobody Cares What You Think

The central struggle presented in this course is over the fate of the One Network that connects all of humanity. Professor Moglen has made it very clear that there are only two outcomes; either the network ushers in an age of freedom and equality heretofore unimaginable or a small group seizes control of the network and uses it to establish an unbreakable tyranny over everyone else. The ends are extreme because the network is; total connectedness means an infinite capacity to communicate or to surveil. There are many entities in society today, governmental and not, pushing technological development towards centralization. If we accept all of these propositions as premises, to fight for freedom is to struggle against those entities.

If this is the case, they are winning. And their lead is steadily increasing.

In American society, at least, the battle for a free Network is fought on two fronts: the law and the marketplace. The way that the Network will develop will ultimately be steered by the people who use it. The technology that develops will be a product of those people’s desires. Functional limitations may push back the precise point at which the Net will tend irrevocably towards either freedom or tyranny, but has very little bearing on which form it will take; eventually, the people will get the technology they demand. The law and the marketplace, by contrast, are essential. Elected officials can enact reforms that promote the development of technologies that facilitate anonymous reading and encryption and prevent the centralization of information. People can choose to buy products that incorporate the technologies of freedom; businesses that develop them will succeed while others that hoard information will fail. The fact that the shape of the One Net is essentially a choice to be made by people is illuminating. The struggle against the forces driving the Network towards centralization has primarily been about facts. But there is strong evidence that facts have very little bearing on what people want or believe. To bring about a free network, we need to stop trying to appeal to logos and instead appeal to pathos.

There is a substantial body of psychological research on political decisionmaking that establishes that facts alone have limited power to change beliefs. In 2004, researchers studied individuals who were presented with seemingly contradictory statements by presidential candidates. The scientists found that when confronted with this information, subjects found ways to logically reconcile their preferred candidate’s statements, but did not do so for apparent contradictions made by the opposing candidate. Even more strikingly, the researchers found that when a subject successfully defended their preferred candidate, their brains reacted by triggering systems for positive emotions in ways very similar to the brains of addicts who have been given a fix. Drew Westen, et al., Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election, 18 Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 11, 1947-58 (2004) available here; DREW WESTEN, THE POLITICAL BRAIN x-xiv (2007). Recently, other researchers on partisanship found that the strongest predictor of party loyalty in elections is their fundamental dislike of the opposing party rather than any reason based in substantive policy. Alan Abramowitz & Steven Webster, All Politics is National: The Rise of Negative Partisanship and the Nationalization of U.S. House and Senate Elections in the 21st Century, Emory University 2015, available here.

Evidence supporting the centrality of emotion in decisionmaking is similarly strong in the marketplace, even in arenas that purport to be particularly data-driven. Much of the work of Nobel laureate Robert Shiller is focused on systemic irrationality in the world of investing. His most famous work focuses on “irrational exuberance”, the idea that excessive, excitement-driven optimism pushes traders to overvalue certain types of investments, which on a macroeconomic scale creates a series of predictable bubbles and crashes. See e.g. Robert Shiller & Karl Case, Is There a Bubble in the Housing Market? Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 2:2003 (2004) available here; ROBERT SHILLER, IRRATIONAL EXUBERANCE 3RD EDITION (2015).

Current approaches to pushing back against a centralized Network put facts first. They want to disseminate information about the extent of NSA surveillance or how invasive Facebook really is. Meanwhile, Apple, Google, and the world’s hubs of personal data are vigorously competing in the only contest that matters unopposed. They are actively selling the idea that by agreeing to give up information, you can enjoy comfort, convenience, and, ironically, freedom. Many people are unaware of the particular ways that Facebook records their information, but teaching them is useless if they feel apathetic towards the data that is given up and trust that Facebook would not use it for anything they find sinister. Google has built a devoted following that is convinced that they are the stewards of the free and open internet. Their image is based around championing the very causes that, if Professor Moglen is right, should call for their destruction. One of Apple’s most famous advertisements paints them as a maverick brand that stands opposed to the conformity and control depicted in 1984.

These are not accidents. Facebook, Google, Apple, and the rest each work to cultivate positive public perceptions of both their particular brand and their vision of society. The only way to dethrone them is to respond in kind. People need to cherish their data so that those who steal it are thieves and those who want to buy it will need to pay a very high price. People need to love encryption, to pursue it and revel in its use. People need to want the things that will keep them free. This is not a lost cause; many people were shocked by Mr. Snowden’s disclosures, fear NSA surveillance, and think Apple is a cult. But if real, substantial efforts are not made to change hearts along with minds, the heretofore uncontested assumptions that lay the groundwork for tyranny will march to victory.


Webs Webs

r2 - 30 Jun 2015 - 14:22:37 - MarkDrake
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