“…and if you observe carefully, you will find this to be so” Marcus Aurelius
This week I read an article that reminded me of something that resided at the periphery of my knowledge; a theory I had read that piqued my interest, but either the train journey had come to an end or something else had distracted me from investigating it further. The theory referred to a thought experiment known as ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’. As it happens, my interpretation of what it was about was misplaced (wrong!). I thought it was saying that the state of something changes once it is observed. Good old Wikipedia has put me straight and I now know it refers to something much more complicated involving quantum mechanics, but I do have the consolation that at least an element of the concept relates to a thing changing when observed.
The article I read (posted on LinkedIn) was a summary of a discussion between a Forbes contributor, Barnard Marr and author Jamie Susskind, entitled ‘What’s the impact of Artificial Intelligence and technology on society’. The linkage to my rambling opening paragraph and the article is the argument that the more information is gathered about us; the more we are observed, whether that is in the form of our online footprint or our physical presence via CCTV etc, the more we change our behaviour. The author argues that by influencing our behaviour, the forces that observe or facilitate the observation are exerting power. Moreover, the way that information is fed to us as a result of the algorithms monitoring what we like is controlling the newsfeed we receive, leading to a self-perpetuating environment of control; power again.
An interesting observation in the article is the ever-growing ubiquity of digital. Susskind argues that whereas not many years ago digital devices were discrete and on or off, the future state sees digital embedded in all aspects of everyday life in society – and always switched on. The information gathering becomes constant and the ability to influence omnipotent; as he puts it ‘the software engineer becomes the social engineer.’
The solution to this ever-pervasive digital presence, Susskind argues, is one that is political and should be solved through Government. The parameters around what is observed and the information that flows should be regulated to avoid manipulation of the individual by the organisations employing these tools.
I have a lot of sympathy for this argument. There have been multiple occasions when I have been at home discussing the merits of a particular gadget, picked up my mobile and glanced at Facebook, only to see the very object of discussion being advertised in front of me. Paranoia perhaps, but the occasions have been too often and the objects too random!
So I do believe that there needs to be some form of intervention to control the use of data. I am not convinced government is the solution, however. I am increasingly dismayed at the inability of government to tackle challenging issues, particularly those that may lead to political fallout. A government solution may offer the sop of checks and balances whilst really miss the crux of solving the issue.
I wonder whether the growing awareness of the constant presence of surveillance will itself lead to a market correcting solution that will shift the power back to the individual? Susskind notes that one person switching off Facebook will still leave the over a billion still on it. But if society demands transparency of information or control of data, perhaps we will find ourselves in a future where we can continue to reap the benefits digital brings, whilst self-directing the flows in and out of information.