Germany

Digital Totalitarianism: How Big Data Is Killing Free Will

Humans are being degraded to the status of objects of an algorithm-based evaluation to be sold on the market. This exploitative form of "hypercapitalism" must quickly be reversed.

Apple's New York flagship store
Apple's New York flagship store
Byung-Chul Han*

-Op-Ed-

BERLIN — Customer Lifetime Value is the term used to denote how valuable a customer is to a company. In other words, the commercial value of human life. Today's "hypercapitalism" reduces human beings to a network of commercial relationships. There is not a single aspect of our lives that has escaped commercial utility.

The digitization of our society eases, extends and accelerates the commercial exploitation of human lives. It subjects parts of our lives to the grasping hand of commercialism that had earlier been inaccessible to economic exploitation. It is therefore necessary nowadays to develop new ways of living that are resistant to exploitation.

Apple's flagship store in New York is a temple of hypercapitalism. It is a cube made entirely of glass that is utterly empty inside. The actual store is situated in the basement of the cube. The transparent Apple shop is the architectural counterpart to the black veiled Kaaba in Mecca. Kaaba means cube. The black construction lacks transparency and represents a theological order that is the opposite of hypercapitalism.

The Apple shop and the Kaaba represent two types of ruling power. The transparent cube is presented as the embodiment of freedom and symbol of communication without barriers; and yet its transparency is actually a form of ruling power that has, nowadays, taken on the shape of digital totalitarianism. This new ruling power of hyper capitalism fueled by total communication also comes with total surveillance. The glass cube celebrates communication that pervades and probes everything and transforms it into monetary value. It's open 24/7 and everyone has access as a consumer. On the other hand, the Kaaba is closed to the public. Only clergymen have access to the innermost sanctum.

The American personal data collection company Acxiom advertises its services with the offer of a "360-degree view of your customers." The company gathers data on a consumer's behavior, marital status, job, hobbies, living standard and income. The algorithms applied are not that different to those of the National Security Agency.

Acxiom divides people into 70 categories based on economic parameters alone. The group that has very little in customer worth is called "waste."

"Big Data" enables prediction of human responses and the future, therefore, can be manipulated accordingly. Big Data has the ability to turn people into puppets. Big Data generates knowledge that enables ruling power. And it is Big Data that makes it possible to access and manipulate the human psyche without the affected person being aware of it. Big Data essentially spells the end of free will.

Today's politicians are asked to curtail the practice of collecting personal data of constituents in light of the danger this practice holds. Credit scoring companies have discriminatory power. The mere idea of economically evaluating a person goes against the ideal of human dignity. No one should be degraded to being an object of algorithm-based evaluation.

The fact that Schufa, the predominant German credit scoring agency, thought of trawling through social networks to gather useful information exposes its true intentions. Their advertising slogan "we create trust" is pure cynicism. Companies like Schufa eradicate trust and replace it with control.

Trust should mean that you, despite not knowing everything about a person, can maintain a positive relationship with that person. If I know everything about someone, trust becomes superfluous. Schufa processes more than 200,000 enquiries on a daily basis. Only a control-obsessed society enables such numbers. A society based on trust would not have any need for companies like Schufa.

In light of the imminent arrival of digital totalitarianism, the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, recently said that it is necessary to forge a charter of fundamental rights in the digital age. Even Germany's former interior minister, Gerhart Baum, demanded a form of data disarmament.

A rights charter alone would not be able to prevent data totalitarianism. What's needed instead is a change in consciousness — and new ideas. We should consider inventing a technological capacity to give personal data an expiry date so that it will be deleted after a certain amount of time has passed.

In the 1980s, people in Germany demonstrated against the national census. Students took to the streets to protest alongside others. A bomb was even detonated inside a civil service building over the issue.

In hindsight, this reaction is hard to understand as the information the census required was harmless: occupation, school qualification, marital status, how far you lived from work. Today, we shamelessly provide intimate details, and more importantly, we do it willingly. We voluntarily publish personal data and information online without knowing who will have access to what, when they will have access to it, and under what circumstances. We do not seem to mind that hundreds or thousands of data records pertaining to us are collected, saved, shared and sold.

No one has taken to the streets because of this and there will never be any massive protests against Google or Facebook.

Nowadays, we are not just victims of state-run surveillance, we are perpetrators of the system. We voluntarily give up protected and private information and expose ourselves to digital networks that penetrate and x-ray every corner of our lives. Any safe distance we try to keep is lost and everything becomes amalgamated. It is this digital vulnerability that hypercapitalism supports and exploits.

We need to ask ourselves what kind of life we want to lead. Do we want to continue to turn ourselves over to total surveillance and human exploitation and thereby surrender our freedom and dignity? The time has come to organize a joint resistance against digital totalitarianism.

*Byung-Chul Han is a Seoul-born German author, cultural theorist, and professor at the Universität der Künste Berlin.

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