Self-censorship in the digital age : We won’t be able to recognize ourselves

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Maybe we shouldn't

When Freud considered the effect of (real political) censorship, he was quick to observe a certain radiative effect by which censorship expands. In advance of censorship, Freud said, we learn to self-censor, to say to ourselves, ‘maybe we shouldn’t write that’ so we add a safety margin of self-censorship around the forbidden utterance. So it is, he argued, in our psychic lives – we over-protect against our internal censor by blocking or distorting thoughts adjacent to forbidden ones.

Our present condition has a censoring role vastly more penetrating than white and black blocks put on letters and newspapers in 1915.  We begin with perhaps just a hesitation. In October 2013, there was an ineffectual bombing at LA’s airport – a carbon dioxide bomb, the radio said.  It made no sense to me – carbon dioxide isn’t explosive, so I started to do what I always do and began thumbing up “carbon dioxide bomb” on my phone…and then thought ‘maybe not a good idea.’ In the end, of course, I did look it up and found, stupidly enough, it meant sticking some dry ice in a bottle. But the lesson was there: the knowledge that I might be walking into a security word search had been enough to make me to hesitate.  After enough trips, we don’t think about making jokes in the airport security line, or even near it. The radiative effect extends its reach.

What does it mean that we know our physical movements are increasingly archived and searchable even long after the fact? Do we begin to hold back from joining a particular social network groups because it might be interpreted as dubious at some future date? Not browse a book online because, later, it could be a problem? Or might we worry that if we fail to do something most people do, we might stand as a more than curious anomaly? Will we worry that physically wandering certain ways in public places, or putting someone in our electronic address book, might trigger a program somewhere, sometime down the line? In any of these instances would a TrapWire program or some successor algorithm send a “Suspicious Activity Report” to Homeland Security?

Find, fix, finish

Even phrasing the problem as one of “privacy versus security” may be far too weak – because we may start to think about the very idea of an interior life of the self differently if so much is scooped up and inferred.   When Andrew Pole, the head analytics guy at Target (a $65 billion dollar/year corporation) lectured on “predictive analytics” in 2010, he began by saying, you may be thinking of big brother – we’ll be careful.  He told the assembled corporate representatives that the holy grail was to assemble a “Guest ID“ – an integration of patterns of customer responses to email, cookies, direct mail, store purchases, and texts.  The goal was to predict and then shape future behavior by customizing all these “channels.” It is a huge trove of personal behavioral data.In 2013, Target and a group of other companies had their credit card and other personal information stolen by Eastern European cybercriminals.  Their number? About one third of the American population. Data, as even the NSA has discovered, will not stay put.

In the rush to build up an ever-widening cache of Digital Identities there is money and power. An expenditure or trip out of the ordinary?  Your bank wants to know. So might counter-terrorism officials.  So might a cyberthief.  Who controls Digital Identity can look for habits, anomalies, social embeddedness, states of mind, and vulnerabilities in order to sell, to persuade, or in extremis, as the NSA’s Geo Cell has it, “Find, Fix, Finish.”

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