Tell Me When It’s Over

Ticketmaster Cast as a Powerful ‘Monopoly’ at Senate Hearing, The New York Times, Jan. 24, 2023.

Mr. Berchtold largely attributed Ticketmaster’s failings to an assault from online bots: automated programs, run by scalpers, that seek to snatch up tickets before they ever make their way to consumers. That drew a largely skeptical response from the senators.

“This is unbelievable,” Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, said, with more than a hint of anger in her voice. “Why is it,” she added, “that you have not developed an algorithm to sort out what is a bot and what is a consumer?”

Why is it that Congress hasn’t developed an algorithm to distinguish a monopoly from a market leader? Wouldn’t that be just as easy, and just as useful?

“Life After Privacy”: Thoughts on Big Data (4)

This is the fourth installment of my series on Big Data and privacy, focused on Firmin DeBrabander’s Life After Privacy. Part 1 was a summary of DeBrabander’s book. Part 2 criticized his “victim blaming” approach to the subject (scare quotes mine). Part 3 criticized what I termed his “counsels of despair” with respect to pushing back on Big Data. 

I had promised, at the end of Part 3, to discuss examples of successful activism vis-á-vis Big Data. But on second thought, it seems better to defer the case studies until the end of the series, treating them as a set of appendices to the main argument. So in this installment, I’ll continue with my main argument against DeBrabander, focusing on the last of his three “counsels of despair,” which I call Sour Grapes: Continue reading

“Life After Privacy”: Thoughts on Big Data (3)

This is the third part of my series on Big Data, focused on Firmin DeBrabander’s book,  Life After Privacy. In the first part, I laid out the argument of DeBrabander’s book as a whole. In the second part, I took issue with what I think of as his “victim-blaming” account of the rise of Big Data. In this part and the next few, I take issue with what I think of DeBrabander’s counsels of despair in dealing with Big Data.

Those counsels of despair might be captured in the following three claims: 

  1. Game Over: Because we’ve already surrendered our privacy to Big Data, there’s nothing to fight over.
  2. Out of Ammo: Because Big Data already controls the Internet, there’s nothing to fight with.
  3. Sour Grapes: Because we lack a good philosophical account of the nature and value of the privacy we’ve given up, we lack a defensible motivation to fight very hard to get it back.

Given this, DeBrabander regards the struggle for privacy as a red herring. The real prize we ought to be seeking is political freedom of a participatory, Arendtian sort, a value that not only bears little connection to privacy, but is in tension with it. Once we opt for an Arendt-style politics, privacy will become a secondary concern, if that. The relevant value will become collective participation in the common good, not privacy.  Continue reading

“Life After Privacy”: Thoughts on Big Data (2)

In a post I wrote about a month ago, I promised a series on Big Data, focused on Firmin DeBrabander’s book, Life After Privacy. Here’s part (2), a response to what I regard as DeBrabander’s excessively victim-blaming account of Big Data’s hold over us. 

A quick recap of the relevant part of DeBrabander’s argument: 

The book begins with a well-documented fact that by now should be common knowledge: Big Data, meaning the data-harvesting and data-mining branches of the modern corporation and modern state, have within just a few decades subverted almost all of the norms of privacy that preceded the rise of the Internet, and have created a surveillance state of unprecedented scope and power.

How did this happen? On DeBrabander’s account, our predicament might be likened to that of the Biblical Esau: we sold our privacy for the digital equivalent of a mess of pottage. In other words, Big Data gave us an iterated series of trade-offs, over decades, of convenience or self-expression over privacy. We cultivated societies of unbridled preference-satisfaction subject to the imperatives of immediate gratification. So we chose convenience and self-expression over privacy, iterated across billions of mouseclicks, and divested ourselves by our own hands, of our birthright.

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Run It “Like a Business”

I worked at banks for 16+ years, and I would like to see our PPS finances run like a business.
Rita Rafalovsky, candidate for Board of Education, Princeton Public Schools (PPS)

A candidate for Board of Education in my town, a banker, is running on the age-old slogan that the local school system ought to be “run like a business.” There are many ambiguities in this claim, but no need to chase them all down. It seems a sufficient objection to the slogan, and to any campaign based on it, that the public schools aren’t a business. So it makes no sense to try to run them as if they were. The more sensible approach might be to identify the kind of institution they actually are, or should be, and run them that way. Imagine walking into a business establishment and announcing that it ought to be “run like a school.” That would  obviously be absurd, but it’s no less absurd if you turn things around. Continue reading

“Life After Privacy”: Thoughts on Big Data (1)

A couple of months ago, while attending a conference on social philosophy, a participant mentioned in passing that she needed to recruit panelists for an Author-Meets-Critics session for a book on the ethico-political ramifications of Big Data. The book was Firmin DeBrabander’s Life After Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society (Cambridge, 2020); the session was to take place at the APA Central Division meeting this February

As an (erstwhile?) philosopher who now works in Big Data, I thought it’d be interesting to give it a shot, so I volunteered. So for the next couple of posts, I’m going to subject you to my thoughts on Big Data (privacy, etc.), thoughts I’ve been piecing together for the eighteen months or so that I’ve spent in the industry. I thought I’d begin in this post with a neutral summary of DeBrabander’s book, move in later posts to some criticisms, and maybe offer some thoughts on what one learns while working in the industry that can’t be learned as a spectator.

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