Gabriel Garcia Marquez once wrote that all of us have three lives: the public, the private and the secret. “In pectore,”* democracy, from its Greek origins until today, has implied individual secrecy.
Making any choice has until today been an individual, intimate decision. However, technology is changing discretion in democracy. The scandals that have diminished Facebook’s stock prices, for example, have to do with the use of private information to motivate voting decisions one way or the other in various critically important elections, such as the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.
A voter is just a detail in a complete profile: Our purchases, addresses, memberships in social or political organizations, sports preferences, ages, culinary preferences and sexuality are a data set that helps define who we are, what we do and how we will probably act.
In that respect, the cost-free aspect of Facebook is illusory. Not even my mother or my best friend knows me as well as Facebook. Perhaps even I don’t know myself as well as the artificial intelligence algorithm that uses the information we generate in Facebook and the social networks.
If Facebook, Google, Amazon and Instagram know me better than I know myself, they will know two things: whom I will vote for in the elections but also how to make me change my vote.
At least two crucial elections in recent history, Brexit and Trump’s presidential election, were significantly characterized not only by the use of personal information generated by Facebook and social media, but also by the inverse effect: the ability of these platforms to generate the necessary information and propaganda, directed and personal, to produce a change in direction of the vote in a sizable proportion of the population.
Our mobile phone can betray our whereabouts at any moment. Our use of social media reveals who we are, what we want and what we are willing to do to get what we want. Technology can find us in an overwhelmingly urban society, in almost any location, thanks to video surveillance and the sensors and trackers in our mobile devices.
Garcia Marquez abandoned this world when that trinity he described so well was no longer possible: At any time the secret life and the private life can become public. The large corporations as well as the state are able to know not only where we are and what we are doing, but also our preferences, goals and desires.
This has advantages for consumers. Companies can make products and offer services according to our preferences and tastes, which reduces the cost of marketing and distribution (as in the case of Amazon). Relying on this detailed personal information helps corporations know our risk profiles and credit and purchase patterns and makes business planning more efficient. This is applied microeconomics in the day to day.
Still, how can we guarantee that intelligence about our daily individual lives will be used in a democratic manner, for the promotion of freedom of expression, of choice and of association? How can we be sure that this intelligence is used for our benefit and not, above all, to boost corporate profits and reinforce any state with tendencies toward vigilance and punishment?
Until now, technology and democracy have not been issues for discussion at the same table. Technology and its development were characteristics of economic and scientific analysis as tools for increasing productivity and well-being. This is no longer the case. Technology makes it possible to know our preferences in every area better than even we ourselves know, and that information is available to corporations and, perhaps, to governments. How do we know that democracy will not be a victim of artificial intelligence?
*Editor’s note: A Latin term, “in pectore” usually refers to a papal appointment that is kept secret.
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