Our digital lives and our real lives are no longer separable. If what we do online affects our real-world opportunities, this could create a culture of timidity and diminished creativity.
At this point, it’d be frivolous to claim that Google and Facebook don’t exercise considerable influence over our lives. The habit-forming techniques embedded in their products’ designs are no secret, and the recent furore over the Cambridge Analytica scandal has highlighted just how susceptible we can be to online manipulation.
Many have spoken out against these practices, and organisations like the Center for Humane Technology, which hope to inform users of their digital rights and equip them with strategies to defend against such manipulation, have seen a groundswell of support.
One voice amidst this mounting concern is digital critic Tijmen Schep, who warns of another, more subtle way that Google and Facebook shape the way we think and act: social cooling.
This is the tendency of people to modify their behaviour when they know someone is watching. Think about how less likely you are to engage in risky or embarrassing behaviour when there’s a chance that footage could wind up online. Or how reluctant you might be to voice an unpopular opinion on social media. This is social cooling in action.
What Our Data Reveals
In an age of ever increasing-surveillance this is especially pertinent. When we use the internet we leave behind a trail of data. This data doesn’t just include the information we willingly provide, in our status updates and likes, but sensitive information which we may not have explicitly disclosed but can be inferred from our browsing histories and online habits.
What we view and how long we view it; where we were when we posted that update and what prompted us to do so — all these factors combine to reveal profound insights into our personalities, which are then sold to companies so that they can more accurately advertise to us.
On some level, most of us are aware of this, though we may not fully appreciate just how detailed a picture these companies possess. The reality is there’s very little about us that Google and Facebook don’t know. A 2013 study found that Facebook likes could be used to accurately and automatically predict, among other things, sexual orientation, religious and political views, IQ, alcohol and drug use, and whether your parents divorced before you turned 21.
But this information isn’t just acquired by advertisers. It’s also highly valuable to data brokers. These are companies which collect information about individuals, usually for marketing or risk assessment purposes. Data brokers combine publicly available data and data that’s been bought or licensed to create elaborate portraits of our past, present, and sometimes future lives. Indeed, very often they make predictions, such as estimated maximum income and likelihood of having a baby.
Based on the information gathered, individuals are categorised and issued a score, and these scores can determine things like whether companies will do business with us and if we’ll be successful in taking out a loan.
The logic behind social cooling is that awareness of these practices induces a kind of digital paranoia. If our every click is being registered and mined for personal information, and this in turn affects how we’re treated by businesses and other people, then it’s very likely we’ll become more inhibited, more cautious in our online movements.
We saw this in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks, where the revelations of government surveillance may have led to a decrease in the number of internet searches for personal and government-sensitive topics. This is a problem not just because it stifles curiosity, but because legitimate queries about health can go unanswered.
Complicating matters is the fact that this self-regulation isn’t compelled by any single actor. There’s no external authority we can identify and sever ties with, or pressure the government to clamp down on. Instead, authority takes the form of public opinion, and fear of disapproval becomes a tool for flattening out impulses and curbing dissent.
According to Schep, if we don’t acknowledge and correct for this, it will only lead to a culture of conformity, risk aversion, and increased social rigidity. Creativity thrives in an environment where people are free to make mistakes without fear of being judged. If we’re constantly preoccupied with how our online behaviour could tarnish our reputations, or threaten our employability, then we stand to become much less spontaneous – and much more boring and meek.
This is the ultimate irony of Google and Facebook. These technologies – which, as their founders are quick to remind us, were born of a subversive spirit – could eventually rob us of our potential for subversion.