Exploring the increasing encroachment of big data on our digital lives can be pretty scary stuff. According to the speakers at Communication Studies’ Annual Colloquium, anonymity in the current digital culture has become nearly impossible, and with few government regulations for personal data collection, this problem is only going to get worse as technology advances.
On October 6, Communication Studies Professors Chris Finlay and Jason Jarvis spoke to a group of students and LMU community members along with Loyola Law School Professor John Nockleby on the pitfalls of becoming inured to the commodification of our personal information. According to Professor Nockleby, social media sites like Facebook are mapping human activity and interactions in order to determine behavioral patterns that can be exploited for marketing purposes. Services like Uber are now ubiquitous and convenient, but they also keep data on our movements, what kind of places we like to visit, and how long we stay there. When self-driving cars become more widespread, this data collection will become even more comprehensive, and the marketing potential even more targeted. Home security services the offer features like remote access may be very useful, but also results in a large amount of data on your movements and preferences that can be tracked and utilized.
Professor Finlay posited the question of what happens when the personal becomes political, particularly when refracted through the current shaming culture of the Internet. This can manifest negatively, such as in cases of bullying, or when political candidates spend more time bashing each other on social media rather than engaging in real discourse. On the flip side of the coin, by bringing the private into the public sphere, it can reveal systemic cultural issues that were previously kept out of the public eye, like domestic violence, and can affect legislation. And by making the personal public, social media has had a profound effect on many issues, such as police interaction with citizens, resulting in calls for more accountability and in cultural movements, such as Black Lives Matter.
Professor Jarvis focused his speech on the future of technology and the proliferation of visual, virtual and wearable devices. He estimates that by 2020, there will be at least 100 million wearable devices gathering data on our every movement. This won’t just include the wearable tech we are all currently familiar with, such as smart watches, Fitbits and Google Glass, but a whole host of sophisticated devices, such as contact lenses on which you can play an augmented reality game, or tattoos that can be used for medical purposes, such as blood pressure monitoring. Certainly, these all have positive uses, but will likely further erode personal privacy.
According to the three speakers, it is important to remember all the implications and trade-offs of utilizing all social media and technology has to offer. When we are overly focused on projecting our lives and viewing our friends’ lives, perhaps we are unwittingly being trained to be okay with this, and in a way are enabling the process. As personal data protection becomes a relic of the past, the question we should all be asking is, if we’re all being watched, then who’s watching the watchers?