Digital takeover

The novel, ‘The Every’, by Dave Eggers is long, but compelling.  It was perfect to listen to as I did various domestic chores.  I finished it yesterday.  A reviewer says of it ‘Kudos to Dave Eggers. In this follow-up to the admirable, big-tech, dystopian thriller The Circle (which you needn’t have read to enjoy the current book), he again squares up to the new enemies of everything untamed and brilliant in humankind. If you meant to read Shoshana Zuboff’s important and demanding The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, but were too worn down by surveillance capitalism’s intrusions to get round to it, The Every tackles the same concerns from a shared perspective of humanist outrage, in the form of a gulpable fictive entertainment.’

I have read The Circle, and I haven’t got round to reading Zuboff’s book – though it’s been on my ‘read’ list since its 2019 publication.   It’s non-fiction,  discussing the way ‘tech companies want to control every aspect of what we do, for profit.’ 

Both The Circle and The Every, heightened my alarm and discomfort at the increasing grip of digital intrusion on my life.   Sadly, the ‘intrusive’ aspect comes hand-in-hand with the increasing necessity to recognise (accept?) this digital takeover as an integral accessory to day-to-day functioning.  

Last week, thanks to The Every, I decided to notice how many of my day-to-day interactions are mediated by digital technologies. It’s a lot.  Some I think are helpful, some are infuriating and all are tracking my every swipe, key tap, contactless transaction, and walk along the city streets. The digital takeover covers five aspects of my life:

Formal and informal (group and individual) interactions.  These divide into two categories: first, video conferencing platforms.  On these, I had several business and social group meetings using one of either Teams, Zoom, Google Meet, Zencastr, WhatsApp video.  The advantage of these is people can interact from any location.  I’ve been able to rejoin my Washington DC book club, though I live in the UK.  The disadvantages for me are the loss of the ability to really see the other people. The subtleties of face-to-face interactions are gone, instead, we have animated passport photo-like rectangles of the head and shoulders of colleagues and friends.

Second, social media channels.  There’s an almost overwhelming number of interactions coming in via WhatsApp, Signal, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media.   The upside of this is the speed of the interaction, I message family members and get an instant reply, the downside of this is the constant feeling I have of having to keep an eye on multiple channels and respond instantly.  

Human activities replaced with digital activity.   I’m increasingly having ‘conversations’ with chat bots or similar – my bank, various retailers, the utility companies, the doctor’s surgery and so on.  Sometimes this works well enough and other times I just long for a human interaction. (Voice but without going through a whole ‘press 1 for this and 2 for that’ rigmarole that sometimes causes me to just hang up).    This week I read about a ‘quirky robot therapist’ which seems to be a mental health version of e-consult, used by my doctor.  I haven’t tried it but am curious. 

Last week, I went into a fast-food place which announced ‘we’ve had an upgrade’. Not to my way of thinking. I preferred the pre-upgrade when I picked up what I wanted from a display cabinet and took it to the till.  Now I have to order from a screen and can’t see the real item till it’s paid for and handed over. 

My local library has become self-service.  Users enter by swiping their library card.  This is good in some ways, but not if I have a query, and not for the many librarians who have lost their jobs.  

Things that were once untracked are now tracked or trackable.  And this is not just parcels and letters, it is behaviours, interactions, activities, items, people’s location, keystrokes, and patterns e.g. of exercise, sleep, eating.  There are some advantages to the trackability of things. It’s handy to see where a letter I’ve sent or a packet I am expecting is on its journey.  And last week a friend of mine had her expensive blue-tooth earbuds stolen from the gym.  She was able to track them to a specific location (house number and street), but couldn’t then summon the nerve to go there and ask for the return of them.  

I’m less keen on the tracking of my buying patterns by retailers who then make ‘recommendations’ based on my purchases.  And  I don’t like the online stores that ask me to create an account before I can make a purchase.  The ‘continue as guest’ is the one I always go for, and if they don’t offer the option I try and find another outlet.   That said, I do have online accounts with multiple organisations.  I don’t know if their software interacts with each other’s but I’m fairly certain it will at some point, if it doesn’t already.

Over the last couple of years I’ve carried physical money less and less. I pay for things using my contactless debit card (not by waving my phone, though).  I’m thinking that physical money is well on the way out. I am surprised in a face-to-face place if it says ‘cash only’ and in that instance, last week, had to go and look for an ATM to withdraw some.

Info feeds. The tidal waves of info that crash around me all the time, I find unnerving.  It’s almost impossible to sift through ‘news’ feeds, social feeds, business feeds, on and on and make any critical and informed judgements.   The fact that I get so much is my own fault – I’ve chosen to get them.  This review of my digitalisation has made me decide to cut down on them. I’m spending too much time on them. I’ll just get a few, and not through a news and info aggregator.  I want to choose my own.

Beyond the feeds, there are the websites I interact with daily and the searches that I do in the course of my day.  It’s a lot of time I’m active online as part of my work and study. 

Spending the week being conscious of what was going digital in my life led me to realise I could not function off the grid and I wonder whether I would want to anyway.  I need, and enjoy, the convenience of some aspects of digitalisation.  What I am alarmed by is the fact that hand-in-hand with this goes the tracking,  the surveillance capitalism aspects, the ceding of choices and controls, the diminution of critical and reflective thinking, and the reliance on the technologies actually working.

How much of your life is being touched by the digital takeover?  What’s your view of it?  Let me know.

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