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Digitalization: The death of society?

By guest author: Dr. Isabella Hermann - Ms. AI Ambassador for AI & Politics


The collection of data plays an important role in the critical discussion about digitalization. The huge amounts of data being constantly accumulated can be used to evaluate, monitor and nudge us – thus to influence our behavior.


On the one hand, an authoritarian state like China uses the data of its population to provide for law and order, for "harmony" in the sense of the Communist Party, by means of social scoring. On the other hand, US internet companies accumulate more and more data for commercial purposes and claim to make the world a better place through the availability and evaluation of data. Both approaches are very similar: the more data there is available about every person, the more transparent society as a whole becomes, the better for the "common good".



“May each of you fry in hell forever”


How dangerous such transparency can become for the individual is shown by two fictional narratives about technologies which come quite close to the current extensive data collection. The short story "The Dead Past" by the American author Isaac Asimov, published in 1956, deals with the development of a time machine – a “chronoscope” – in the form of a kind of monitor that makes it possible to see every point of the past within a period of about 100 years. In this way, the course of recent history can be observed in real time up to the present. The American authorities of the future in Asimov's story have known for a long time that it is possible to build such a device quite simply. Therefore, in cooperation with the management levels of scientific institutions, they try to suppress research in the field of chronoscopy in order to prevent the spread of the chronoscope. The government understands the liberal democratic system as we know it would be over if every citizen could watch any other twenty-four hours a day. However, when the knowledge transfer on how to build a time machine can no longer be stopped despite all the measures taken, the judgement of the head of the Chronoscopy Department is unequivocal:


“What kind of a world we'll have from now on, I don't know, I can't tell, but the world we know has been destroyed completely. Until now, every custom, every habit, every tiniest way of life has always taken a certain amount of privacy for granted, but that's all gone now. You have created a new world among the three of you. I congratulate you. Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone, and may each of you fry in hell forever.”


A dead society


Almost 50 years later – in 2004 – the Chinese author Cixin Liu published his award-winning short story "Mirror" (Jìngzi). In this narrative, software developer Bai steals a "superstring computer" from his employer, the Centre for Weather Simulation in the Chinese province of Henan. With this high-performance computer, Bai manages to simulate the big bang and ends up in a mirror universe which is identical to ours in all aspects. Like Asimov's "The dead past", every event can be traced on the computer screen, yet not only 100 years into the past, but from the beginning of time to the present. When a civil servant in Liu’s short story falls victim to a police conspiracy, he expects the computer simulation to positively turn his fate: By making the mirror public, not the lightest offence would remain hidden, he says "and no one who has committed guilt will escape his just punishment".


The unscrupulous police commander is more far-sighted:


"A society that knows no moral lapses is dead."


This is how it goes in Cixin Liu's story: the mirror finally penetrates every corner of human life until civilization is destroyed by the computer simulation. Due to the complete transparency nothing can be expressed, nothing new experiencedanymore. Ironically, Cixin Liu's let in his story the Chinese destroy the mirror until it is reinvented and made public by a scientist from Princeton University in the US.


From the end of privacy to social scoring


Are we not already moving towards a world of "mirrors" and "chronoscopes" with the currently advancing digitalization and the new possibilities of systematic evaluation of past and present data? In China, it is the government itself that monitors the population and assigns social scores according to the performance of the citizens, which regulates sociopolitical coexistence. As Liu already describes it in his story, the "slightest offence" is uncovered and any "moral misstep" is punished, for example by denying air travels or access to universities. If surveillance in China is state-controlled with the help of internet corporations, in the Western world it is the large private internet corporations such as Facebook, Amazon and Google themselves that collect and link our data and create comprehensive profiles for commercial purposes. Therewith, these digital corporations accumulate social power within our Western democracies without being democratically legitimized. Our criticism of the Chinese system and our fear of total surveillance are therefore quite cheap.


While we are indignant about the Chinese social scoring model, we are voluntarily making ourselves transparent on the social and commercial platforms, letting digital assistants listening in what happens in our homes and smart watches capture every step. The protection of privacy is a high value in democratic constitutions, but often enough, especially in liberal democracies, people tell that they have “nothing to hide”. Anyone saying that misunderstands the dimensions: beyond the ideal right to privacy, it is also about the protection of personal data from commercial exploitation, for example in the increasingly individual setting of prices for certain services, be it the holiday trip, the amount of insurance premiums and the classification of creditworthiness.


Asimov and Liu show us with their short stories – which they wrote at very different points in time and against the background of two different ideological-political systems – surprisingly similar worries and challenges when it comes to complete individual transparency for authorities exercising power. Perhaps the European Union could take some cue from the reasonable, if not even idealistic state institutions in the narrative, which want to prevent the development and dissemination of the according technologies: The need for and correctness of common European legislation to protect our privacy and freedom.

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