Updated: May 28, 2020
According to Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, it is no longer a viable option simply to call for stricter regulations to curb the ingress of surveillance capitalism into the furthest reaches of our daily lives. Advising internet users to uninstall Facebook, or governments mandating more frequent and intrusive popups, are two indications that private individuals and policy makers are beginning to realize the gravity of this spread. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that surveillance and, therefore, incursions into privacy are so interwoven as part of the fabric of our contemporary lives that purely reactionary measures are no longer sufficient; to effectively combat the more pernicious effects of technological change, it is imperative to develop long-term, forward-looking policy.
The crossroads we are facing today is due to the following conundrum: We know we can’t overlook the growth of surveillance capitalism, yet we are not sure what the “solution” is. Perhaps this dilemma is even more fundamental, for we have not answered (or even posed) the question, “what do we want our future, as a species, to look like?” Do we want to contribute content which may be used to facilitate the growth of surveillance and disinformation? What responsibility will users have for the future they may be inadvertently helping to create?
Until we have carefully considered such questions, short-term measures like precipitant regulatory action or anti-monopoly confrontations with companies like Facebook will fail to address the concerns of our societies adequately. We require nuanced moral, philosophical principles to guide the actions we take, or else we risk continually fighting a rear-guard action against the largely invisible and ever shape-shifting force of surveillance capitalism. Education will play a key role in the process of developing these principles. The vital skills of reason, of open debate, and of critical thinking have been made all the more significant in the wake of our digital paradigm shift; for while one should acknowledge the potential democratizing effect of technology, it is also a reality that many of us now have instant access to an unprecedented amount of information which we must evaluate for veracity, for salience, and for value within. Successfully negotiating surveillance capitalism will require the return of reasoning, as opposed simply to Googling.
There is no better place to commence this return to reason than at the University of Cambridge, rightly regarded as a bastion of rigorous and innovative thought. The PIMS think tank is a student-run research institute with the aim of beginning to fashion a socio-politico-ethical map for the future of a world that can negotiate with sophistication the coexistence of privacy and surveillance capitalism. The U.S. Constitution has, in spite of its flaws and contradictions, stood the test of time. This is, to a degree, because it was the result of its writers’ careful thought and profound knowledge of political philosophy. The ‘revolutionary’ idea of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ was originally penned by John Locke in his Two Treatises on Government (1689). His theoretical exposition of the citizen’s role, the state’s role, and the interactions between the two provided the theoretical framework with regard to which the United States’ Constitutional Convention drafted the Declaration of Independence and Constitution; the Convention carefully leveraged insights from political philosophy to begin a radical new experiment in democracy. In a way comparable to the influence of John Locke, Thomas Paine, and other political philosophers on the efforts of the Constitutional Convention, I intend for the PIMS society to act as a shaping force on future decisions in this area of concern; the research outcomes of the think tank will take the form of papers, articles, and expositions aiming to provide answers to the pressing philosophical and moral questions regarding the intersection of surveillance and society.