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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Sand-Heap Paradox and all That

 We were interviewed at P&G in the late 80s for one of Shoshana Zuboff's books, so this piece reminded me of some of what we were doing then.   Don't remember the term 'Surveillance Capitalism',  but it is relevant.   Worth a look.  

The Sand-Heap Paradox of Privacy and Influence   By Moshe Y. Vardi

Communications of the ACM, September 2021, Vol. 64 No. 9, Page 5   10.1145/3477583

I look in the mirror every day. I look the same as the day before. No change. Then I have a Zoom call with a person I have not seen in many years, I wonder how they got so old, and I realize that the other person must be thinking the same! The human mind always struggled with comprehending the cumulative impact of a large number of very small changes. This phenomenon has already been the subject of two classical Greek paradoxes: The Sand-Heap paradox and Zeno's paradoxes. When I was an elementary-school pupil, a favorite brain-twister was "How much is infinity times zero?"

We are facing the same paradox with respect to privacy and influence on the Internet. There are information items that we clearly want to protect, such as credit-card numbers. When such sensitive information is stolen via a cybersecurity breach, we clearly feel our privacy has been violated. But it is harder to feel a loss of privacy when we reveal a tiny bit of information at a time: a link clicked or a social-media posting "liked." Yet Internet companies have mastered the art of harvesting the grains of information we share with them, knowingly or unknowingly, and using them to construct sand heaps of information about us. Shoshana Zuboff, of Harvard University, named this business model of Internet companies "Surveillance Capitalism" in a 2019 book.

Zuboff called surveillance capitalism "an assault on human autonomy" and "a threat to freedom and democracy." We all realize that Internet companies persuaded us to give up some privacy for the sake of convenience, but how much privacy have we given away? This is opaque to us. We see each grain of information given away, but not the heap of information. It is also opaque to us how this heap of information has been used by others not only to predict our behavior but also to influence and modify it. After the January 6, 2021 Capitol Insurrection in Washington, D.C., Zuboff wrote that "We can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both."  .... ' 

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