Your Life as a Number
By Jayne Williamson-Lee of IBS Intelligence, published June 24, 2019
This is the latest article from the world of psychology: from behavioral research to practical guidance on relationships, mental health and addiction.
As you go about your day—texting friends, rating Uber drivers, searching Wikipedia—you create an immense trail of data. Every time you order from Amazon, reserve an Airbnb, or research quantum physics, you leave digital traces that the companies you patronize can access to predict your future behavior, or at least the behavior of people who share your demographic indicators. Most of us are aware of this privacy tradeoff: It’s the cost of doing business in the digital age, and it underwrites free delivery and frequent-user discounts. But at the same time, some far less transparent data brokers are hard at work sizing up your personal history and converting your tendencies into distinct scores that, without your knowledge, signal to companies—and perhaps government agencies—what kind of person you are, how much you’re worth, and how well you deserve to be treated.
Since the coming of the digital age, if not before, political commentators, science fiction writers, and consumer advocates have warned that, as data collection and analysis improved, we would each inevitably be reduced to a number—our past, quirks, and personality distilled to a single integer spit out by a machine to which we could not appeal. That day may have finally arrived, and the ramifications of this new era are just beginning to emerge… Social-credit systems threaten to perpetuate existing social stratifications by codifying and in turn validating them. They also raise the prospect that people may become more protective of their scores than of their relationships. If we become unwilling participants in such a social experiment, advocates warn, it will be crucial that we remain skeptical of schemes that could more closely connect us with authority while pushing us further out of touch with other people. “It’s going to get harder and harder to have secrets,” [Jeff] Jonas says. “And if you know it’s going to be hard to have secrets, then I envision two kinds of futures: One could be, everybody’s trying to be ‘normal.’ Or, people will be who they want to be, and the world will embrace diversity. That’s the future I really want.”