Digital Surveillance : Like clueless guinea pigs

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Steady Surveillance could solve problems Bild: AP

IT-Bosses tell us that all our problems can be solved by collecting information. The more you give, the more you get. But then there is only „social physics“ instead of politics left.

          Even the mavens of Silicon Valley are occasionally right. And so: the production, accumulation, and analysis of traces left by the digital devices does produce real benefits. Following the logic of the Peace Dividend – a popular slogan of the early 1990s, which held that decreased military spending would promote economic growth – we can speak of the Surveillance Dividend: the idea that the Internet of Things and Big Data and the inevitable disruption of the entire universe by a handful of Californian start-ups will yield economic abundance, political emancipation, universal prosperity. 

          Thanks to the increased trackability of everything, we can design better, optimize better, govern better, know better. The Surveillance Dividend boosts efficiency. It saves money. It extends lives. Its benefits are real. The right question to ask, then, is not whether the Surveillance Dividend allows us to govern better or know better. No, it’s to ask: better than what?

          German Version: Wir ahnungslosen Versuchskaninchen

          To answer that question, it helps to analyze how the proponents of the Surveillance Dividend tout its benefits across different domains. In his new book Social Physics, Alex Pentland, a professor at the MIT Media Lab, an adviser to the World Economic Forum in Davos, and a very important man  (according to his web-site, he dined “with British Loyalty and the President of India”), describes an experiment called FunFit that he ran in Boston.

          The goal was to get members of a local community to be more physically active. In the past, the study might have deployed a social advertising campaign about the benefits of health. Or it might have paid individuals to stay fit. Pentland, however, chose a different strategy: everyone in the study was paired with two peers from the community. They might have known them only slightly or, on the contrary, be very close to them. These two members were provided with small cash incentives for getting their shared contact to increase their physical activity, tracked by accelerometers in the smartphones provided by the study.  Thus, if you walk around more than usual, your peers – not you! – get the cash.

          The results were astonishing: the scheme worked almost four times more effectively than the traditional approach of paying individuals directly. Moreover, if your peers were people with whom you interacted a lot, it worked eight times better.  Pentland, thus, announces the birth of a new discipline: “social physics.” Thus, by studying our existing social relationships and using that knowledge to provide specifically crafted incentives to individuals, we can finally address the long-neglected social problems.

          Observation solves problems

          Pentland provides another example: during the 2010 congressional elections in the US, American academics conducted a study on 61 million Facebook users divided into two groups. Both saw messages urging them to vote but the first group saw a generic and unpersonalized message while the second group saw a personalized message that featured faces of their friends who had already voted. The laws of social physics held up: more people from the second group actually voted. For close friends – as opposed to mere online acquaintances – the results were particularly impressive: four times more people voted after seeing the personalized message.

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