Evgeny Morozov writes: In “On What We Can Not Do,” a short and pungent essay published a few years ago, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben outlined two ways in which power operates today. There’s the conventional type that seeks to limit our potential for self-development by restricting material resources and banning certain behaviors. But there’s also a subtler, more insidious type, which limits not what we can do but what we can not do. What’s at stake here is not so much our ability to do things but our capacity not to make use of that very ability.
While each of us can still choose not to be on Facebook, have a credit history or build a presence online, can we really afford not to do any of those things today? It was acceptable not to have a cellphone when most people didn’t have them; today, when almost everybody does and when our phone habits can even be used to assess whether we qualify for a loan, such acts of refusal border on the impossible.
For Agamben, it’s this double power “to be and to not be, to do and to not do” that makes us human. This active necessity to choose (and err) contributes to the development of individual faculties that shape our subjectivity. The tragedy of modern man, then, is that “he has become blind not to his capacities but to his incapacities, not to what he can do but to what he cannot, or can not, do.”
This blindness to the question of incapacities mars most popular books on recent advances in our ability to store, analyze and profit from vast amounts of data generated by our gadgets. (Our wherewithal not to call this phenomenon by the ugly, jargony name of Big Data seems itself to be under threat.) The two books under review, alas, are no exception.
In “The Naked Future,” Patrick Tucker, an editor at large for The Futurist magazine, surveys how this influx of readily available data will transform every domain of our existence, from improving our ability to predict earthquakes (thanks to the proliferation of sensors) to producing highly customized education courses that would tailor their content and teaching style, in real time, to the needs of individual students. His verdict: It’s all for the better.
Since most of us lead rather structured, regular lives — work, home, weekend — even a handful of data points (our location, how often we call our friends) proves useful in predicting what we may be doing a day or a year from now. “A flat tire on a Monday at 10 a.m. isn’t actually random. . . . We just don’t yet know how to model it,” Tucker writes.
Seeking to integrate data streams from multiple sources — our inboxes, our phones, our cars and, with its recent acquisition of a company that makes thermostats and smoke detectors, our bedrooms — a company like Google is well positioned not just to predict our future but also to detect just how much risk we take on every day, be it fire, a flat tire or a default on a loan. (Banks and insurance companies beware: You will be disrupted next!)
With so much predictive power, we may soon know the exact price of “preferring not to,” as a modern-day Bartleby might put it. [Continue reading…]