Kaveh Moravej


The age of the mega-hoarders is gathering pace. With an unquenchable thirst for personal data, these Goliath-like organisations want to know all they can about you, unifying every disparate bit of data and monetising that knowledge. They want to know where you live, where you work, where you go, who you know, what your habits are and what you look like. They want to know your next move before the thought has even manifested itself among your neurons.

LinkedIn is power. The data is accurate. The photos are accurate. All of it voluntarily provided by its users, under no coercion. At first it served a useful purpose, allowing "professionals" (a term nowadays robbed of all meaning, and deserving its own essay) to network with one another. People wrote their own inflated biographies, and posted recommendations for one another — some of it genuine, some of it flattery. Then came skill "endorsements", which came in handy for people too lazy to type out a recommendation. With the addition of social features, it gradually turned into Facebook in the guise of a suit and tie.

In time, driven by herd behaviour, it became a professional norm — a necessity for people to get ahead. The few who considered an alternative path were swept aside by the many. Soon, every unimaginative "career" guru hopped on a bandwagon, imploring people to get LinkedIn or to stay forever LinkedOut. The many panicked and in their short-sighted fervour for short-term rewards, handed all their precious data to one company.

Society benefits from the existence of a professional social network, but not when that data sits in the hands of one company. For decades, the advertising industry has faced an insurmountable problem: absolute knowledge of the individual. Individuals could be targeted by segment, but this was a far cry from the dream of refining an advert towards a single individual. The exponential growth in data gathering has now brought this dream within reach, providing advertisers (and the owners of these advertising gateways — Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.) with the power to wage highly effective and profitable psychological warfare on the individual.

History's most unequivocal lesson is that power corrupts. Contemporary psychology confirms the same. An ethologist observing this particular animal on its path to power, would no doubt notice a distinct change in behaviour. It corrupts Homo sapiens at every level, only varying by degree. At lower levels it can sometimes be made socially manageable, but the handful of mega-hoarders want power on an unprecedented scale — beyond anything evolution could have possibly imagined — all operating under the power of one mega-powerful state. "But we shall have checks and balances," they say, even though power by its very nature circumvents, undermines and subjugates such forces.

The power of the data hoarders will continue to grow at the expense of individual privacy and freedom — or should that simply be freedom — for how can freedom exist without privacy? Even those proclaiming to have no interest in privacy will soon find their lives to be an intolerable hell once their privacy becomes truly non-existent. Find such a man and enter his home one day, asking to see all of his private correspondence, his personal photos, and the receipts for all of his shopping. Tell him that in return for such information, you would be so generous as to provide him with security, acting as a private guard for his house. In return for listening to all of his telephone conversations, perhaps you might even pay for the rent of his telephone line.

Few men would find any of the aforementioned "services" acceptable, for having a person do all this in front of us, drives home the discomforting reality of these privacy invasions and thus makes it intolerable. Yet by sheer psychological trickery, if we were to hand these functions to a machine — to hide them away, to make them silent and secretive — we are lulled into an odd sense of acquiescence: out of sight, out of mind.

Once upon a time, man lived in small communities where people knew a great deal about one another. This was a perfectly natural state of affairs and helped us to better aid and understand one another. We cared for them, they cared for us, and it improved our collective well-being. Then came the post-industrialised world in which thousands of strangers live amongst one other. Information is gathered and divulged either under state coercion or by hidden means. The mega-hoarders observe us in secret. They care nothing for our well-being. We are simply a monetary value, assigned to us by machine algorithm.

To stay on our current course is to embrace a deeply inhuman future. Allowing any one organisation to have access to such information presents innumerable dangers to the individual. The greatest danger of all is for people to resign themselves to the status quo, to stop caring, to stop questioning. Indeed power is most successful when it convinces others not to fight. As we look around us for alternative paths, we find that there is another way, one which will place power back in the hands of the individual, where it rightfully belongs: decentralise.