ICT Africa Headline News

Google's a Spy, It Knows What You Want to Hear, It Knows Your Deepest Secret Fear...

11 July, 2016
By Elsie Eyakuze
I was recently asked what I thought about the Internet of Things and how it would affect my life. Had to be honest: As it is, the Internet of Things is the purview of a very small minority of technophile Tanzanians.

You have to have means to buy Things, and you have to have uninterrupted electricity, and you have to have a certain kind of education for it all to come together.

There is very little danger of this being a widespread trend in my generation but you never know, so let's leave room for surprises.

This question was really about the implicit "threat" of being always connected to our machines, and having so much of our lives monitored by entities we don't always know are collecting data about us.

Last week's rant was about our governments' misdemeanours in ICT, this week it is about the truly sinister organisations: The profiteers.

When I took the introduction to economics for the third time as I grappled to understand this "rational man" that keeps showing up in their bizarre neoliberal models, I tripped across another offensive term: Consumer. If Rational Man is reductive, Consumer has been deprived of all humanity.

To repeat what I heard recently: If you are not paying for a product, then you are the product. Here is how it all comes together: We "consumers" buy technology to facilitate our communications.

On these devices we have come to expect the "free services" of a handful of conglomerates: Ye Google (Alphabet) and Facebooks and such like.

Precisely because they are "free," we have little influence on what they do with the data they collect on us.

If you don't know what I mean, you have never engaged in an infuriating and futile battle to keep your privacy settings correct on Facebook.

The end result is that, nowadays, apparently between Facebook and Google and your data providers, a "consumer" is effectively just another data point in the history of the world's largest ever human survey.

The algorithms that observe our online lives know what we like and who we are with apparently more intimacy than our fellow human beings. Does this give you pause? If not, then consider this: These technogiants can sell or provide your data to whomever they wish for whatever reasons they concoct.

Sure, at present they are resisting governments' attempts to subpoena them for information about citizens. But who knows how that will go?

To bring this back to the Internet of Things and where ICT is driving our human development, I was unpleasantly surprised when the Google app on my new phone encouraged me to use the voice search. I did, and my phone demonstrated that it can hear what I say and interpret my question and provide me with answers.

I say unpleasant because we all have different reactions to smart technology: Mine is frankly hostile. Google has made no secret of the fact that it records every single interaction you have with it, ever.

In the relationship between humans and machines I am firmly on the humans' side. Sometimes this means being a very careful non-consumer. I don't respond to advertisements voluntarily, and take pains to avoid too much capitalistic stimulus.

It means being content with the limitations this places on my life, and it is liberating. Having no need for the latest new-fangled doodad is salutary; it means that marketing departments can't exploit my self-esteem to make me a cash-spitting zombie.

More important, I think, is that it keeps life rich. I am coming to believe that the more convenient life is for us, the less complex, then the worse off we are.

It is a contradiction of modern life: Never have humans been smarter as a species. But then again: Never have we been more violent towards the environment nor more subject to the manipulations of economic elites.

As it is, universities in the West are complaining about students' inability to use libraries and having to train them to think beyond Wikipedia as a credible (and sometimes only) source for academic papers.

Some guy who had an extremely beautiful and expensive car managed to wreck it and kill himself because he figured that the autopilot function meant it was a good time to watch a Harry Potter movie. Even airline pilots don't take a nap just because the autopilot is on, for heaven's sake.

This is why I am hoping against hope that the Internet of Things doesn't make it to Tanzania.

If it does, and our Things are constantly telling us what to do, we will become fat and lazy and stupider than we should be.

Let us keep leaner, meaner and hungrier than the masses who are being slowly but surely enslaved by the technologies that are supposed to liberate them. And here you thought The Matrix trilogy was just a harmless piece of entertainment.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report.

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