Monday, July 22, 2013

Cameron's war on pornography, and the strange destruction of privacy in the 21st century

I wrote a few months ago about the misconception of humanity living in an unprecedented age of freedom. Censorship and the restriction of freedom of speech is alive and well, and is used extensively by the state, the private sector, and the religious fanatics when they can get away with it (which is often).

That misconstrued sense of freedom is further destroyed when you think about the erosion of individual privacy that has taken place over the last twenty years. You need look no further than David Cameron's recent declaration of war on pornography. Here the British Prime Minister wants to introduce control over what British individuals watch on the internet; effectively have people "tagged" as porn users, and ban all forms of child pornography and "violent" pornography.
I'm not here to make a blanket defence of all forms of pornography; instead I'll simply state there being no proven causal link between porn and sex crimes (violent crime has gone down in recent years, and there has never been a coinciding rise in sexual violence with the massive surge in available online porn; besides, if you are going to ban porn, then why not violent movies, and so on). This is just another example of intrusion into individual privacy for the sake of it.

More cynically, it is a blatant piece of opportunist populism for the purposes of diversion. More seriously, it is another weapon of control against the individual.  As a classic tactic of Fascist propaganda, it fits the bill, as Cameron's "war on porn" is a) superficially-popular b) gives greater powers to the government, and c) has only a negligible effect to the actual target of the policy.
Propaganda as a political tool was mastered by the Fascists in the 1920s (which coincided, not coincidentally, with the rise of marketing and advertising as a social tool - more on that later). Fascist tactics are to concentrate power to the central government, while at the same time appearing popular, and having a useful scapegoat. Using "moral panics" about phantom social threats is recurring theme in authoritarianism.

Ever since the widespread use of CCTV across the world began twenty years ago (The UK being the worst offender), privacy has become so eroded in so many ways it's difficult to remember.
CCTV is trumpeted as a great weapon against crime: well, it is true that it theoretically should make it easier for the police to catch criminals after the event, it does little to actually prevent crimes from happening. Even so, most of the cameras installed around the world are not even really used for crime prevention purposes, let alone used by the police. The vast majority of cameras are not owned by the state, but by private companies, who are therefore much less accountable to the public, and the technology much more open for abuse. The fact that we take all this for granted is simply a sign that people have learned to mentally block out the fact that their every move is recorded on cameras mostly owned by private companies.

Apart from the surveillance society, we know that the internet is watched by governments around the world. The Edward Snowden scandal showed us that there are no limits to what the US government is capable of if it is given unchecked power to watch humanity online. The British government is little better. These days, it's better (and more accurate) for people to assume that everything they do online is recorded somewhere, regardless of how trivial or utterly useless the data is. As cynicism has increased as we entered into the 21st century from a more idealistic 20th century, people are no longer surprised that governments flout the law and any individual's rights: as true cynics, many people assume that the worst will happen, most of the time.

While governments around the world gather data on people en masse simply for the sake of it (in case it is useful later), it is private companies who are the some of the worst offenders of all.

Technology has allowed people to communicate as never before; it has therefore also allowed technology companies to gather masses of an individual's communications and data as never before. The most obvious example is "Facebook".
What's worse about this is that private (online) technology companies like Facebook use marketing techniques to gain more and more information on people, to allow individuals to "customise" or "tailor" their personal webpages. People are encouraged to add more and more data to these companies' records for the supposed purpose of giving these individuals a "more complete service"; this is Orwellian Doublespeak at its best, and encourages individuals to freely give information to an unaccountable private company that they would never dream of giving to their government.

This is what makes this erosion of privacy so dangerous. Governments are at least (theoretically) accountable. Private companies are only accountable to their shareholders; no one else. Even worse, the information that individuals do give to these private companies is often shared with government anyway, as the Snowden scandal has exposed. So this makes the whole charade even more absurd.

But the strange erosion of privacy in the 21st century seems to snowball ever larger. The Orwellian dystopia he predicted in "Nineteen Eighty-Four" in many ways already exists. Technology has been used for the purposes of greater and greater surveillance, and people are happy to shrug their shoulders and continue to freely offer up the contents of their lives to private companies like "Facebook"; myself included!

Teenagers and children now raised in the "Facebook and Twitter Generation" think nothing of sharing every thought in their head online, to be recorded for all eternity. Technology and data retention online means that "Facebook" has an even greater hold on your life after your death that even the government; when you die, you no longer exist on the tax records, but you'll always be on "Facebook". You are never dead on the internet.
On a psychological level, part of this generational shift in the attitudes towards privacy may well come down to a more narcissistic attitude of the newest generation - I've said more about this elsewhere. "Facebook" is the kind of online service that appeals to anyone with a weakness for self-promotion. As Individualism has increased in society, especially over the last thirty years, these advances in technology and communications are now being used as vehicles for gathering unprecedented amounts of information on humanity, while at the same time indulging post-modern humanity's joy of Individualistic Narcissism. It is a clever ploy.

As I said earlier, marketing as a social tool coincided with the rise of Fascism. The clever "marketing/propaganda" behind "Facebook" is that feeds the perception of granting people greater scope to express their Individualism/Narcissism, while at the same time sucking masses of data from individuals to a central database, which can be transferred onto government on demand. The Snowden scandal has put meat to the bones of this theory. So this is how Fascism and marketing have fused in the 21st century, through the advances in technology. Whereas Communist/impersonal regimes find it difficult to obtain individuals' data without using coercion, Fascism's symbiotic link to the unregulated private sector means that individuals can be easily persuaded of their own free will to give up their own right to privacy. The Neo-liberal world we are living in is one where Fascism has morphed into something bigger, smarter, and more adaptable than its pre-Second World War origins.

"Privacy" has almost become a dirty word; that is certainly the suggestion implied by Cameron's "war on pornography", and the mass use of technology for sharing information.

If you want to have a private life, it means you must have something to hide!

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