Finney passed away in 2014, but it's fair to assume that he would have been concerned by many recent developments in the digital space. In fact, those who follow in Finney's footsteps, like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, believe that transparent and accountable digital networks are the only ways to protect our hard-won individual freedoms. So here's a look at why you should study digitalisation, surveillance, and how they impact society...
Log on or drop out?
It's becoming increasingly difficult to function in advanced economies without access to smartphones and apps that scoop up our personal data. We're arguably coerced into handing over sensitive information in return for the right/privilege to socialize, stay up to date with current affairs, and even pursue our career goals. Nobody is, in the direct sense, forced into setting up a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or other social media account. However, if you don't, you may miss out on news and events in your friendship circles and if you don’t understand how these platforms work, you'll struggle to find a job in various fields, such as digital marketing, analytics, and journalism.
Given the rapid rise of technology and the coming post-COVID digital reset, this kind of pressure will only increase. It seems like we're approaching an inflection point where people in advanced technological societies will have to log on or drop out.
Searching for some much-needed middle ground
Silicon Valley is full of intelligent, ambitious, and idealistic people who have a genuine desire to make the world a better place through technology. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey pledged around 28% of his multi-billion dollar fortune to charitable causes. Moreover, his Cash App mobile payments platform connects millions of people previously without access to banking to the global economy via blockchain and cryptocurrency technology.
However, every innovation brings unintended consequences. Some of them are good, while others create a new set of problems that few (if any) could have predicted. Social media brought people together. This sounds like a good thing. But it wasn't long before analysts started noting an echo chamber effect, where people primarily interact with others who think and feel the same things. Also, there is the spread of fake news and the relative anonymity afforded by platforms such as Twitter enables people to be rude, obnoxious, and openly hostile without facing any of the attendant social consequences.
Overall, this appears to have reinforced existing biases and led to even deeper political and social divisions. If you're not convinced, just spend a few hours on Twitter searching for hashtags related to issues such as gun control, abortion, vaccines, and immigration. You'll soon realize that it gets pretty ugly out there. And what happens to our societies if so many people continue along these parallel paths?
Exploiting our worst natures
In 2008, a whistleblower revealed that consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested data from 50 million Facebook profiles. It then used the data to build a powerful software program to predict and influence people's choices and behavior, including how they might vote at the ballot boxes. What's more, it did this by appealing to the lower part of our nature, such as fear, distrust, and anxiety. Christopher Wylie, who worked with Cambridge Analytica to obtain and use the data, revealed, "We exploited people. We built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on."
Incidents like this are not just a threat to our privacy or potential for individual autonomy. They also undermine the nature of the democratic process by giving powerful individuals the opportunity to shape and direct public discourse for their special interests. The primary investor in Cambridge Analytics was Robert Mercer, a billionaire hedge-fund manager and one of the USA's most prominent political donors. Mercer also used his wealth to influence European referendums, including the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union (Brexit) in 2016.
The general public is thankfully becoming aware of the huge impact technology and tech companies have on society, due to revelations such as those about Cambridge Analytica and popular recent Netflix documentaries The Great Hack and The Social Dilemma. After these came to light, many people announced they were deactivating their social media accounts (even if some were pulled back), while many more seriously questioned their usage of social media in light of the revelations.
A new kind of credit score
Social credit systems aren't new ideas. In fact, they're an essential part of any functioning society. Applying for a loan, a job, and maintaining personal relationships all involve some kind of formal or informal social credit system that incentivizes and rewards positive actions.
But what we’re seeing in countries such as China is very different. Modern digital surveillance techniques have allowed China's social credit system to expand into all aspects of life, including a person's trustworthiness and emotional state. If a person's score drops low enough, they're denied access to certain services, like booking a train or flight. Other punishments include exclusion from private schools, slow internet connection, and exclusion from high prestige work. Repeat 'offenders' are named and shamed on public blacklists.
But this is only part of a much bigger issue. China's social credit system has raised serious questions for many other countries. Social credit systems allow governments and private companies to collect huge amounts of data. This data is then used to build increasingly advanced digital and AI technologies, giving their creators a massive geopolitical advantage.
Such issues have been cast into sharp relief by the COVID-19 pandemic. Measures such as contract tracing and vaccine passports have become very controversial, as politicians, scientists, and the public debate the right way to balance the arguably competing needs for individual freedom and public safety.
So the questions are: how can Western governments remain competitive while still protecting sacred ideas like privacy and individual freedom? And is such a thing even possible?
Studying digitalisation, surveillance, and societies
If you want to play a part in the essential conversation about the digital future, you should consider enrolling at the Erasmus School of History, Culture, and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), in the Netherlands.
This innovative faculty recently unveiled a brand new MA program in Digitalisation, Surveillance, and Societies. The first course begins this Autumn and is available as a 12-month full-time master’s degree or a two-year part-time master’s degree.
With the help of world-class digital professionals and guest lecturers, students will be encouraged to explore the social and cultural challenges posed by increasing global digitalisation. Students can examine these important issues in the context of well-known cases, including the Edward Snowden revelations and the implementation of GDPR in the EU and beyond. Ultimately, it will be up to students to find answers to critical 21st-century questions, such as what it means to be a digital citizen? And how does the expansion of technological surveillance impact our privacy and individual freedoms?
The MA program in Digitalisation, Surveillance, and Societies was designed to equip students with the knowledge and skills that today's employers are looking for. You'll learn how to analyze data, develop scientifically informed responses, and implement practical solutions to real-world problems. Potential career options include working in the tech sector, corporate communication, artificial intelligence, regulation and privacy, journalism, or government policy work.
The Erasmus University Rotterdam is spread across three campuses in Rotterdam. The second biggest city in the Netherlands, Rotterdam is famous for its cosmopolitan outlook and values, making it an ideal destination for international students. The city is packed with interesting museums and art galleries to explore, and there's a lively nightlife scene that caters to everyone.
"Rotterdam is a relaxed, vibrant, interesting city and Erasmus University has lots to offer for any exchange student wanting to experience a truly welcoming culture," says Melanie, a British student who spent a semester at EUR.
"Rotterdam is the ideal city to study abroad and meet new people from across the world. EUR is a bustling campus that is close to the city centre, with a small supermarket, food court and café bar/theatre; there are lots of places to meet up with friends after class. Also, it plays host to plenty of events for students, so it gives you the chance to become immersed in Dutch university life."
"From indoor food markets to music festivals to secret bars, the diversity in places to visit in Rotterdam means that there is something for everyone. The time I spent in Rotterdam was a great learning experience both academically and personally; the opportunity to study abroad is an experience like no other!"
The world faces complex, difficult, yet fascinating challenges in terms of digitalisation, technology, surveillance, and democracy. Are you ready to shape our digital future?
Article written in association with Erasmus University Rotterdam.