By Tanja Zimmermann
Photo: Gregor Fischer from republica
When individuals are nothing but computable data clouds, how sovereign can they still be? Prof. Yvonne Hofstetter asks this question in her latest essay published by the IEEE. She is an honorary professor in the field of digitalization and society at the University of Applied Sciences Bonn-Rhine-Sieg. She is also a member of the Chatham House Commission on Democracy and Technology in Europe.
The idea of technology is to be beneficial to people. But when technology is used to make individuals traceable, predictable, and controllable, how beneficial can it be? Especially when data is in the hands of a few large corporations. This not only reduces individuals to a data cloud and makes them an object. But the decisions of individuals become traceable and are no longer free and independent. How sovereign are people if they can no longer make independent decisions?
Technology Shall be to the benefit of man
The question is, when does technology benefit people and when are people used by technology to create a suitable profile of them? Profiling people may be a temptation for different reasons: enterprises do it for capitalistic reasons, governments for the control of citizens and 'national security' purposes. If technology is used in this way, can it still benefit people? There is no question about the benefits of technology. Optimization periods of machines and whole factories can be calculated and determined in advance. Farming can be done more efficiently and thus in a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way. But can people be treated in a similar way? Of course, it is also an advantage if the individual receives advertising that is perfectly tailored to him or her. This eliminates search costs for him in the form of time that would be spent on identifying and selecting the next purchase. But Prof. Hofstetter poses the question of whether a person is being reduced to not more than a pure data cloud. Almost a digital twin is created of every individual. Is it the right approach to equate people and machines and treat them in the same way? Doesn't this turn man into an object?
What if the individuals are not perfect?
What kind of person is perfect? Probably hardly any. But what is then? What then awaits the individual person? The Chinese government, for example, pursues a social credit system. Simply described, credit points are awarded for proper behavior. Those who 'misbehave' are sanctioned. Are people then still independent? Hardly! Even if this was an extreme example still, the idea of social credit systems is also spreading in democracies. For years now, lending companies from industrialized countries profile consumers for their behavior to determine whether those are eligible to receive a loan. While the actions of individual companies are not particularly public to us or are hardly visible to outsiders, the German government, i.e. the Department of Education and Science, in their study "Foresight" considers a social credit system as one probably scenario for Germany' future 2030. A person who would not reduce her carbon footprint would then not be allowed to study at university, for example. If the individual is not perfect, he or she will probably have to accept disadvantages in one way or another - perhaps even without knowing about it. Simply because companies believe he or she has become predictable and an object of behavioral control.
What are the consequences of profiling individuals for a democracy?
What are the consequences for a democracy if citizens become increasingly transparent and predictable? How sovereign are individuals when data on individuals, which is the basis for many decisions, is no longer in their own hands but in the hands of a few large companies and even the government? What happens to a democracy in which the population gradually relinquishes its sovereign decision-making ability since in many cases they are not even aware of the long-term implications? Digitization can thus become a game changer for democratic societies.
The full text of the essay can be accessed here.