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The Coming Tyranny of Digital Data

August 1, 2012

Christine Rosen in The New Republic:

Just west of Seoul, on a man-made island in the Yellow Sea, a city is rising. Slated for completion by 2015, Songdo has been meticulously planned by engineers and architects and lavishly financed by money from the American real estate company Gale International and the investment bank Morgan Stanley. According to the head of Cisco Systems, which has partnered with Gale International to supply the telecommunications infrastructure, Songdo will “run on information.” It will be the world’s first “smart city.”

The city of Songdo claims intelligence not from its inhabitants, but from the millions of wireless sensors and microcomputers embedded in surfaces and objects throughout the metropolis. “Smart” appliances installed in every home send a constant stream of data to the city’s “smart grid” that monitors energy use. Radio frequency ID tags on every car send signals to sensors in the road that measure traffic flow; cameras on every street scrutinize people’s movements so the city’s street lights can be adjusted to suit pedestrian traffic flow. (…)

Now that we feasibly can embed electronics in nearly any object, from cars to clothing to furniture to appliances to wristbands, and connect them via wireless signals to the World Wide Web, we have created an Internet of Things…With the Internet of Things, we are always and often unwittingly connected to the Web, which brings clear benefits of efficiency and personalization. But we are also granting to our technologies new powers to persuade or compel us to behave in certain ways.

As Peter-Paul Verbeek, a Dutch philosopher, argues, it is long past time for us to ask some difficult questions about our relationship to our machines. Technologies might not have minds or consciousness, Verbeek argues, but they are far from neutral. They “help to shape our existence and the moral decisions we take, which undeniably gives them a moral dimension.” How should we assess the moral dimensions of these material things? At a time when ever more of our daily activities are mediated by technology, how do we assign responsibility for our actions? Is behavior that is steered by technology still moral action?

Drawing on technology theorists such as Don Ihde and Bruno Latour, as well as the work of Michel Foucault, Verbeek proposes a “postphenomenological approach” that recognizes that our moral actions and the decisions we make “have become a joint affair between humans and technologies.” In this affair, human beings no longer hold the autonomous upper hand when it comes to moral agency; rather, Verbeek argues, we should replace that notion with one that recognizes “technologically mediated intentions.” [More]

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