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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Dystopia Is Upon Us. Are You Ready?

The year is 2022. Robot dogs roam the streets beside police officers, a decentralized currency is revolutionizing the economy, digital citizenship and e-governments are emerging, jobs are being automated, and billionaires are commercializing space as Earth faces a record-breaking climate crisis.

When you zoom out, it’s easy to see that American society is approaching a modern-day dystopia as the once sci-fi-worthy stories of environmental destruction, technological control, and loss of human rights and freedoms creep to fruition. But when you zoom back in, it’s not as obvious to see how these factors are impacting you on an individual level. The rapid growth and influence of technology, in particular, is taking control of your reality, and it can have a permanent impact on your personal identity.

Unprecedented events that have unfolded within the past few years have revealed the flaws and weaknesses of the US government and corporate America, whose actions have shown they don’t always have your best interests in mind. Therefore, it’s up to you to proactively adapt to this brave new world, starting with your everyday routine.

The eerie loss of individuality is looming right before your screen every time you passively press “accept” on a new privacy policy and turn a blind eye to why your data is being collected. While it's easy to ignore the data tracking that has become so commonplace, Caroline Hsu, the cofounder of Cyber Collective, an organization that champions data ethics, says those privacy popups seem “so inconsequential, but what we’ve historically seen with tech is that it starts very small and snowballs into something we didn't foresee.”

Although privacy advocates have been spreading awareness and fighting for regulations for decades, there has been very limited progress on data protection. The recently enacted California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) requires businesses to mandate Global Privacy Control, a tool that allows California citizens to easily exercise their privacy rights online, but the clock is ticking for other states to follow suit.

Jules Polonetsky, founder of the Future of Privacy Forum, an advocacy group that develops privacy protection for ethical business practices, warns that there is a risk for everything—including what you do, hear, and see—to be tracked and analyzed if governments don’t set boundaries on the types of data being collected and how it’s used. He advises that “we need a national privacy law that will set a baseline for responsible uses of data.”

Initiatives like Project Liberty and the Web3 Foundation are taking it upon themselves to build government-friendly tools and technologies that also protect personal data, guided by principles that let individuals own their data and understand when they’re granting access to it and why. Simultaneously, advocacy organizations and privacy-focused companies are introducing data privacy tools and resources that you can use right now. For example, switching to browsers that have made privacy a central feature, such as Brave and DuckDuckGo, will defend you from site trackers and filtered search results, and switching from WhatsApp to Signal or Telegram will keep your activity encrypted and private. Privacy management platform Elroi can even show where your data fits into the larger ecosystem and is currently developing ways for you to control that data.

Though there may be tools that limit data tracking and mandatory disclosures for targeted ads, it’s not as easy to spot filtered news that’s customized to your data. The personalized news that you see has had persistent problems with algorithmic and confirmation bias, ultimately increasing disinformation and polarization because you’re being exposed to news that’s favorable to your beliefs rather than news that will expand your outlook.

Big tech companies are finally giving serious attention to these issues. Facebook, wary of government intervention, recently published a post about their privacy efforts and Twitter announced their plans to become a more credible news source, but individual users still bear the responsibility for seeking out authoritative and truthful news sources and diverse voices. But in the same way you have to be wary of fake news, you have to read in between the lines of corporate statements.

For example, Facebook’s statement promises the company will protect user data, but nowhere does the company acknowledge why they’re collecting data in the first place. Facebook is often quick to say they don’t sell your information, but their only response to questions about why they collect it is in order to make their own services better—which is supposedly in your interest, but not explicitly in your control, even if you choose not to use it.

Rajul Punjabi, an educator and senior editor at Mic, a culture and politics outlet, advises that you can also see if these statements match the company’s intentions by looking at what politicians and organizations they fund. Sites like OpenSecrets and Goods Unite Us often reveal that lawmakers are either on the payroll of, do consulting work for, or are politically supported by these same large companies. This frequently leads to ineffectual privacy legislation or well-meaning statements from political leaders that may not do much to address real privacy issues.

According to Mark Weinstein, the Founder of MeWe, a social platform that allows you to connect with others while still protecting your privacy, “a well-intentioned legislation is ineffective against these giants. People of the world will have to move away from these companies and support businesses that protect their privacy.”

The news ecosystem has also changed. In order for publications to succeed, they often have to write dramatic headlines to compete with viral fake news. When it comes to vetting news sources, you can spot what’s credible by verifying the topic across a variety of sources, researching the outlet’s expertise, and checking the web address to make sure you’re reading the site you think you’re reading. Or, if you want to get news directly from the source, you can subscribe to the newsletters of noteworthy journalists if they have one, or follow them on social media for links to their stories and additional commentary.

From the subconscious impacts of fake news to the physical pressures of social media, you’re not as in control of your thoughts as you might think. As the documentary The Social Dilemma pointed out, social apps are designed to keep you coming back, sharing content, and refreshing to see more, even when you think you want to put the phone down and ignore it. As you become more aware of how these platforms are designed to keep you locked in, you can have more control over the time you spend on them.

“What’s most compelling about sci-fi literature isn’t the technology but how people's relationships change within technology,” says Jack Weinstein, a philosophy professor at the University of North Dakota and the host of Why? radio show. “What we’re looking for is intimacy in the face of invisibility.”

It’s human instinct to share things you find interesting and seek social approval from the people you know and trust, but when that instinct becomes a part of your routine multiple times a day, every day, you’re constantly inviting external feedback to validate your self-worth, which can have a harmful effect on your mental health. You need to flip the coin and use the platforms with your best interests in mind, rather than the platforms using you for their benefit.

The more you take that control back from platforms and companies that are eager to offer you a minimal benefit in exchange for data and information that makes them wealthy and powerful, the more you walk back from the precipice of being a player in a dystopian society—one where your actions, impulses, and decisions are either subtly or overtly manipulated by those same platforms.

Instead, you use them at your own discretion and desire, and you understand exactly what you’re paying when you choose to use them. Being an active consumer of quality information and a conscious user of services that are designed to keep you engaged rather than informed and healthy keeps you from falling under the influence of those services, and keeps your mind free to make your own choices based on facts and not memes.

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