Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Datafication by Choice

'Datafication': making sense of (big) data in a complex world, Lycett, Mark.  European Journal of Information Systems; Abingdon Vol. 22, Iss. 4,  (Jul 2013): 381-386.  Datafication is the  “capture, representation and delivery of data to inform decision making and action.” This seems so innocent when it’s written that way, and those skeptics amongst us frequently want to take on who is doing the capturing, while the technologists (both pro and con) are talking about how the information is captured. This week’s readings are not focused on the capture of the information so much as investigating whose decisions are being informed, and this is, to my mind, the right question.
Datafication, dataveillance, and the social credit system as China’s new normal Claire Seungeun Lee, 2019  “– China’s new social credit system, which turns both online and offline behaviors into a credit score through smartphone apps” sounds like something right out of a William Gibson novel. Terms like “the social credit system,” “data-driven authoritarianism,” and “datavellience” seem plucked out of science fiction nightmares. Yet here we are, all of us, downloading apps to track our steps, tapping to log in at our favorite cafe, or using our watches to pay for everything from bus passes to movies with friends. This is the structure of how a social credit system is even possible, never mind how it’s used. 
Irresistible bargains: Navigating the surveillance society by Robert M. Pallitto, 2018 “certain aspects of the surveillance society may be irresistible in a number of ways, so that refusal to engage with them is not a realistic option.” When you install a swimming pool in your yard, you are obligated to also secure the safety of others from being injured by your pool, usually by putting up a fence of specified height, because a swimming pool is considered in legal parlance as “an attractive nuisance.” That is, that the idea of swimming is itself attractive enough to inspire risky behavior. A young child in the neighborhood might see it and be so emotionally drawn to it that they enter the pool without being able to swim, for instance. This, in legal terms, is your responsibility to manage and mitigate. But in our rush to adopt the latest, most informative, and attractively helpful technology, are we entering into risky behavior? How would we even know? Pallitto talks about the attractive smart city disabling cars when payments are late and this seems like a very Western-capitalism model for the data-driven authoritarianism that Lee describes. But there are many other ways in which we could elect to have our data used to control our mundane lives: what if your insurance policy offered a quarterly rebate or credit for anyone who walked the recommended 70,000 steps in a week? Sounds like a real win, right? But is this seeming incentive-rewards program actually a fine for those who don’t achieve it? What if insurance rates were increased for subscribers who walked fewer than 50,000 tracked steps in a year? This sounds a little outlandish, but we already have steep financial disincentives in the insurance landscape for tobacco product use. How is that any different from the steps scenario presented above? I’m not sure that it is. It’s not a difference of type so much as Pallitto and Lee show a difference in scale. How big does data have to get before it is too big? How monolithic is too monolithic? I remember in 2000 when GE promised never to sell my information as I signed up to be able to pay my electric bill online, and I thought, “They don’t have to sell it; they already own everything.” And sure enough, GE Capital sent me any number of pre-approved offers regularly in my inbox, to my phone, and to my physical house. 
    This year, GE Health Care was birthed into existence. Amazon is in the healthcare universe as well, offering me better prices on my prescriptions without even entering my insurance information than I get at CVS when billed through my coverage. How is this even possible? And, more importantly, why would I not use the Amazon pharmacy option when it can save me money as well as be more convenient? Alexa even reminds me not only to refill my prescription and alerts me when it’s delivered, she (you see how I already think of her as a person) offered to remind me twice a day to take my blood pressure medicine and at night to take my statin (I’m old; this means I’m a member of the beta blockers and statins club and also means that I’m grateful for reminders). Every morning around 7:30 and every evening around 7:30, I touch the screen of my echo show to mark the task as done. In the dataveillance model presented by Lee, it’s completely plausible to conceive of a day when Alexa reports to my doctor that I haven’t marked my tasks as complete for a week, or calls the ambulance if my monitored pulse is too low or too high. And, here’s the real rub, would I feel grateful that I had the assistance? Possibly, yes, even to the point of signing up for the service and paying for it (all rolled into my Amazon Prime annual fee, most likely). When our Amazon Prime subscription fee doesn’t go up but “now includes more” we are not given options to opt out. I cannot, for instance, opt out of having the Amazon Pharmacy and other Amazon Health menu options available in the app itself.
Kwet argues that “Software is a central component of freedom in the twenty-first century.” (p. 18) In Kwet’s analysis, the Global North is enacting digital colonialism in the Global South through economic domination, imperial control, and tech hegemony and Digital colonialism: US empire and the new imperialism in the Global South Michael Kwet, 2019 Kewt’s answer is Free and Open Source Software, which he likens to “the development of socialism within Europe as a reaction to land enclosure and industrial exploitation, and its subsequent spread across liberation movements throughout the world.” (p.18) He introduces Moglen’s pillars of digital freedom. “Moglen adds that the trio of Free Software, Free Hardware and Free Spectrum (network connectivity) form the foundation for Free Culture, whereby anyone with a device and the Internet can freely access, produce and share published works. Taken together, the core pillars of the digital ecosystem are essential components which, by their very freedom and openness, empower the public – rather than states, corporations, or any other third parties – to exercise direct and collective control over the devices and ecosystem shaping their lives.” I’m not entirely convinced that free open source alone is enough to convince us to opt-out of the attractive nuisance of digital surveillance. We continually accept all cookies without coercion because we want the integrated, convenient, tailor-made solutions that datafication and integration offers.      Pallitto metions this as a matrix of irresistibility, offers that "consumers ... find ... irresistible. There are at least five components of this irresistibility. Specific bargains can be (or seem to be) irresistible:
  • in terms of convenience
  • in terms of efficiency
  • in terms of ubiquity
  • in terms of the networked life-world
  • in terms of the source of sharing being hard to pinpoint."