Thanks to smartphones or Google Glass, we can now be pinged whenever we are about to do something stupid, unhealthy, or unsound. We wouldn’t necessarily need to know why the action would be wrong: the system’s algorithms do the moral calculus on their own. Citizens take on the role of information machines that feed the techno-bureaucratic complex with our data. And why wouldn’t we, if we are promised slimmer waistlines, cleaner air, or longer (and safer) lives in return?

This logic of preëmption is not different from that of the NSA in its fight against terror: let’s prevent problems rather than deal with their consequences. Even if we tie the hands of the NSA—by some combination of better oversight, stricter rules on data access, or stronger and friendlier encryption technologies—the data hunger of other state institutions would remain. They will justify it. On issues like obesity or climate change—where the policy makers are quick to add that we are facing a ticking-bomb scenario—they will say a little deficit of democracy can go a long way.

Here’s what that deficit would look like: the new digital infrastructure, thriving as it does on real-time data contributed by citizens, allows the technocrats to take politics, with all its noise, friction, and discontent, out of the political process. It replaces the messy stuff of coalition-building, bargaining, and deliberation with the cleanliness and efficiency of data-powered administration.

This phenomenon has a meme-friendly name: “algorithmic regulation ,” as Silicon Valley publisher Tim O’Reilly calls it. In essence, information-rich democracies have reached a point where they want to try to solve public problems without having to explain or justify themselves to citizens. Instead, they can simply appeal to our own self-interest—and they know enough about us to engineer a perfect, highly personalized, irresistible nudge.

On Loneliness & Technology

  • FJP: We've been reading different takes on digital social networks and how/if they impact solitude, loneliness, and offline socializing. Here is a mash-up of the conversations we've been following.
  • The Atlantic: Social media—from Facebook to Twitter—have made us more densely networked than ever. Yet for all this connectivity, new research suggests that we have never been lonelier (or more narcissistic)—and that this loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill.
  • NY Times: New communications technologies make living alone a social experience, so being home alone does not feel involuntary or like solitary confinement. The person alone at home can digitally navigate through a world of people, information and ideas. Internet use does not seem to cut people off from real friendships and connections.
  • The Atlantic: We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.
  • Slate: Articles about American alienation may well feel true to those who long for simpler, happier times, but they’re built on fables and fantasies. In fact, there’s zero evidence that we’re more detached or lonely than ever.
  • The New Yorker: M.I.T. psychologist Sherry Turkle, takes issue with the basic promises of digital connection. She thinks that togetherness, far from being strengthened by technology, has been crowded out by “the half-light of virtual community.”
  • The Atlantic: But it is clear that social interaction matters. Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing, but both are on the rise. We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy. The decrease in confidants—that is, in quality social connections—has been dramatic over the past 25 years.
  • The New Yorker: Klinenberg’s research suggests that our usual perceptions about life alone get things backward. Far from being a mark of social abandonment, the solo life tends to be a path for moving ahead, for taking control of one’s circumstances. And, rather than consigning individuals to suffer in their solitude, aloneness may come at a cost to the community. The single life is inherently self-interested: it calls for vigilance on matters of self-preservation both large (financial autonomy) and small (dish detergent), and, in many cases, it frees the solitary from the sorts of daily interaction that help craft a sense of shared responsibility.
  • NY Times: The Pew Internet Personal Networks and Community Survey — a nationally representative survey of 2,512 American adults conducted in 2008 that was the first to examine how the Internet and cellphones affect our core social networks — shows that Web use can lead to more social life, rather than to less. “Social Isolation and New Technology,” written by the Rutgers University communications scholar Keith Hampton, reveals that heavy users are more likely than others to have large and diverse social networks; more likely to visit parks, cafes and restaurants; and more likely to meet diverse people with different perspectives and beliefs.
  • The New Yorker: Given our digital habits, the question isn’t whether we should use technology to ease our loneliness. It’s how.
  • FJP (Jihii): Ah, key question. So, where do we stand? I'll quote Michael.
  • FJP (Michael): What do I think about social media? For my personal use it’s a bit of a time suck and I have to remind myself to step away from it, head outdoors and wrap my mind around something more substantive than the flurry of information I find myself in. For professional use it’s integral to the FJP’s ability to build audiences and engage with them. I can’t think of how we would be able to accomplish what we do without it. Societally, I’m a big believer in tools and platforms that allow people to connect, organize and share information. Social media increases the speed with which people can do so more than any other tool in history. This is great. My fear with it though is that people will increasingly build information silos around themselves and only hear and expose themselves to information that they want to hear, and from a partisan perspective from which they’d like to hear it. (
  • FJP (Jihii): So yes, the power is in our hands, social media users. How do you choose to use your social networks? I think the key point is to continually check ourselves and reflect on just that.
  • PS: Sorry for the lack of links. This post format won't allow it. Here are links to the articles. (Note that both the NY Times piece and Slate piece are by Eric Klinenberg.)
  • NY Times:
  • Slate:
  • The Atlantic:
  • The New Yorker: