The Internet and Human Agency

Many people seem to think that tackling the big issues of the IT revolution is a demanding occupation requiring considerable expertise.[1] While there’s some truth in this view, it does not mean that individuals are helpless – far from it. Throughout history oppressive systems of any kind survived only because large numbers of people provided passive assent. In the case of the current Internet the vast majority may well continue to hand over their rights – and subject themselves to pervasive surveillance – in return for what they perceive as ‘free’ services for some time. The counter meme that ‘if something is free you are the product’ has yet to achieve broad acknowledgement, but this could change. It’s worth remembering that the use of ‘suboptimal’ Internet enabled services was never presented as a truly free choice in the first place. It came bundled with skilfully hidden costs and penalties some of which are only now becoming clear.

The long term impacts of high end design, coupled with pervasive and psychologically seductive merchandising, suggests that the choices people make as consumers are, in fact, not really free at all (Dennis, 2017). This is not a new idea. It’s been understood at least since Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders (Packard, 1957). But pervasive advertising arguably works like social acid by penetrating the body politic and quietly dissolving human options and capabilities by artifice and design. It’s another profoundly ambiguous ‘gift’ from the US that has exploited human cupidity and weakness for at least a century. For it to become the core business model of the current Internet places a heavy burden on the rest of the world and reflects the continuing moral decline of the US (Zuboff, 2015; Greste, 2017).

At the micro or personal scale, however, there are ways to escape the consumer trap, some of which are quite straightforward. For example, one might begin to experience a sense of discomfort or betrayal about being ‘constructed’ by powerful corporations as merely a passive consumer. From here it is but a short step to contesting reductive conceptions of what it means to be human. Viewing people in such ways certainly vitiates human respect and undermines human autonomy. Six decades ago Packard believed it unethical and his assertion has not been disproved by anyone since. A related strategy views language as a medium of great symbolic power. To develop relevant concepts and language around what the Internet is, what it does – and especially its personal and social costs – helps to sustain the understanding, the symbolic capacity, of anyone interested in solutions. Becoming aware of how Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest have grown rich by collecting and selling every piece of information that can be scraped from our on-line activities supports processes of reflection that can readily tend toward refusal. Refusal, that is, to use this service in this form from this particular source. So, while the US government, in its currently divided and intellectually parlous state, remains diverted by other concerns, this is by no means the end of the story. We can propose that individuals can enact their own versions of anti-trust regulation simply by withdrawing assent from organisations that exploit them.

Smart phones with their multitude of apps, many of which routinely scan, monitor and send streams of personal data to remote agencies, are a major and continuing concern. Adults, can, if they wish, take control over these devices and apps to some extent. In the US legislation exists to protect children but its effectiveness is debatable. For example, in July 2017 the Centre for Digital Democracy (CDD) filed a class action against the Disney Corporation accusing it of subjecting children to commercial exploitation. Apps for nearly 50 Disney media productions designed for young children were said to include embedded trackers that extracted personal data and sent it for analysis by corporate interests. According to the director of the CDD ‘these are heavy-duty technologies, industrial-strength data and analytic companies whose role is to track and monetise individuals’ (Fung & Shaman, 2017). Respect for childhood and children per se is clearly among the many casualties of the present media landscape.

Currently it is impossible for anyone to shield themselves entirely from scanning, tracking, the expropriation of personal data and related abuses. Such practices remain too embedded, too profitable and effective (for a few) to be replaced overnight. Meanwhile options are available to concerned individuals wishing to reduce their overall exposure. Various ‘how-to’ accounts exist, some of which are up-dated over time. One example from mid-2017 was an article written by Darien Graham-Smith in the Observer. He sets out some of the ways that personal interactions with Internet giants can be modified through careful use of privacy-related menus. He also recommends moving to non-invasive web browsers that do not track searches (Graham-Smith, 2017)

Strategies such as these may appear insignificant when set against the many broader, macro-level changes that are needed. But if or when enough people start taking them, the climate of opinion could change rapidly. As more people realise that a social licence to operate as they please was, in fact, neither sought by, nor ever granted to the oligarchs, the latter appear certain to find themselves increasingly under siege (Solon & Siddiqui, 2017).

References and Note

Fung, B. & Shaman, H. (2017). These Disney apps may be spying on your children, Age, August 9.

Dennis, R. (2017). Curing Affluenza. Melbourne: Black Inc.

Graham-Smith. D. (2017). How to escape the online spies. Observer, May 14.

Greste, P. (2017). The decline of America’s moral authority: losing the Trump card. The Saturday Paper, April 1.

Packard, V. (1957). The Hidden Persuaders. London: Longmans, Green.

Solon, O. & Siddiqui, S. (2017). With friends like these… Guardian, September 3.

Zuboff, S. (2015). Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects for an information civilisation, Journal of Information Technology, 30, 75-89.

Image credit: JAYKAES.CO.UK (Brick Lane, London)


[1] This short article was initially part of a much longer essay: The IT Revolution Reassessed Part 3: Framing Solutions written for Futures. But the piece grew beyond reasonable bounds and had to be cut. This section never felt quite ‘right’ in the original text, which is one reason why it was removed. Parts 1 & 2 of this project are currently ‘in press’ within the Elsevier editing system and Part 3, will appear in the journal in due course. For those interested, the pre-publication manuscript version of Part 1: Literature Review and Key Issues can be found in the Recent Work section of the Foresight International site and this weblog.