The recent political debate over CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act) this past month has — if nothing else — helped people understand how all of the various players in the Internet ecosystem have their own unique biases in how you use the Internet. But what about the digital devices and platforms these interest groups seek to regulate?
The most obvious example of digital technology having a “bias” are the new social profiling technologies, such as Klout, Peer Index and Kred. Over time, they can lead to systemic biases against digital introverts and in favor of digital extroverts. The new Klout mobile app now makes it possible to display your Klout score without even opening up the app — it’s on your screen for you to see anytime you pick up your mobile device. The more information that you add about your online activity (no matter how mundane) the more likely it is that your Klout score will rise. It also means that the more you open up about your online social life, the more likely you will get perks and VIP offers and all the other trappings of online influence. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true: A low Klout score can bias employers against you and even lead to new forms of digital discrimination, as I mentioned last week.
Digital media and social networks, by virtue of the way they have been programmed, also have their biases. In Program Or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age , media theorist and counterculture figure Douglas Rushkoff points out the ten different biases of digital technologies. For example, Rushkoff points out that they are biased in favor of openness, sharing and social interaction. They are biased towards long-distance communication rather than face-to-face intimacy. (If you’ve ever seen a couple at a restaurant, looking down at their tiny devices, sending text messages into the ether without so much as glancing at each other, this is intuitively obvious). They are also biased in favor of anonymity and privacy.
Which brings us back to CISPA and its bias against privacy.
Viewed from this perspective, new legislation such as SOPA or CISPA can be viewed as systemic attempts to change or even reverse the natural biases of our digital technologies. Internet users may think it’s great that the Web is biased towards openness, sharing and social interaction. On the other hand, Hollywood studios may not think it’s so great that we’re all out there anonymously sharing files for free. Internet users may think that it’s great that the Web is biased in favor of depersonalized, anonymous communication. On the other hand, cybersecurity experts may not think it’s so great that it’s so hard to track people online.
What can you do if you think your technology is biased? You can be like The Verge's Paul Miller, who chose to opt out of the Internet entirely for a year as a way of countering what he saw as the overwhelming bias towards always-on connectivity. Or, less dramatically, you can make greater effort to understand what is at stake whenever legislation such as CISPA comes up for a vote.
At the end of the day, anyone who uses the Internet has an obligation to understand the inherent biases of digital technology, and to be prepared for the unintended consequences that can occur when biased parties attempt to change them.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful."
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