Will Computers Change Us?

I was recently setting up a new computer for a client, and kept seeing Google ads relating to a particular theme

There was nothing wrong with the theme, but it did relate to something highly personal, and I wondered if the client realised that this gave an indication of something that had clearly been on her mind recently. I do realise – and appreciate – that my computer clients place trust in me with respect to the parts of their data that I can’t help seeing, but there must be many things that we treat as belonging very much to our private sphere that are now “leaking out” into a more public space. Even within the confines of her own home, this client may have preferred other members of her family, for instance, not to know what had been on her mind recently.

As time goes on, this sort “leaking” or “bleeding” of our private pre-occupations into wider domains is likely to increase, thanks to computers and the internet. I know I’ve banged on about this kind of thing before, but this incident set me to thinking about how all this tracking and information-gathering may change us as humans and society as a whole.

Paris Brown
Paris Brown – lost her job before it had started, thanks to things said on Twitter years earlier.
I hear that there is now software available that analyses the language used on Facebook pages and comes to conclusions about likely personality traits of the page’s owner based upon the actual words they have used. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of a good story! Assuming it’s true though, (or soon will be), how do people working in HR feel about using such tools for candidate selection? How do the people analysed feel? I don’t know. I do know that I wouldn’t like it happening to me. Are potential job seekers being more circumspect on Facebook since the highly publicised case of the Youth Commissioner losing her job before she’d even started because of some rash statements a lot earlier on her Facebook page? I do know that there are people earning a living by “cleaning up people’s online reputation”, but I suspect that the average computer user is still way behind in appreciating just how much information they are giving away and how this is being used.

George Orwell
George Orwell
Modern internet browsers come with a setting called “Do Not Track”. It is hoped that the writers of the software that tracks our movements around cyberspace will honour our expressed preference not to be tracked, but it’s too early to say how many will be honourable in this way. In the meantime, tracking software can follow us around cyberpace and build its own pictures of who we are, what we care about, what motivates us into action, and so on.

George Orwell predicted our being watched by technology, of course, in his novel 1984. The motivation he ascribed was political control. The way things are going, we will achieve the same results but the motivation will be money and we will have sleep-walked into it because we want a free internet. Once collected, the data can then be used by others who can claim legitimacy to see it. For example, the police can already access our recent travel history if we use an Oystercard.

The Hardy Tree
The Hardy Tree
Thomas Hardy was mindful, while writing the Wessex Novels, that he was recording a way of life that was soon to be ended by the advent of the railways. The communities about which he wrote would soon no longer be self-contained: they would be joined to everyone and everywhere else by the railway. I dare say he had a lot of time to ponder the implications of the coming railway as he worked as a surveyor before becoming a full-time writer and was responsible for overseeing the proper re-location of bodies in St Pancras Churchyard to make way for the coming railway. On a side-note, many of the gravestones were temporarily re-located around a tree and have been left there for so long that the tree has grown into them. This is now known as the Hardy Tree. The church and churchyard are also noteworthy for other reasons.

Is the internet doing exactly the same thing as the railways but on a global scale and at a much deeper level? Will it change the way we see ourselves and behave as individual humans? I don’t know. Personally, I shudder at the thought of the loss of privacy and independence that all of this portends, but, on the other hand, I’m sure that we are all creatures of our own time and grow up embracing the realities of the world that we see at the time. Even if it does change us as humans, we’ll probably just accept change as it happens, and crusty old antedeluvians like me will continue to tut and say “where will it all end”. “you wouldn’t get me in one of those” and “it’ll end in tears”.

PS: for an irony of publishing in the digital age, see this link on how Amazon disappeared 1984 from countless Kindles

(Last updated 08/09/2023)