It’s getting hard to escape ambient surveillance these days. As much as we try, our lives are inextricably linked to a multitude of data points and digital crumbs that we create after every action, even when we think we’re offline. Our phones record and report our location in collaboration with cell towers and GPS satellites, tracking pixels report back when we’ve read emails and where we read them from, wristbands and watches record our steps and activity level, we helpfully supplement that by uploading pictures of everything we eat to Instagram, and we click through every single website that offers us cookies because it’s just what we do to get us through the day.
It’s easy to be fatalistic about the nature of privacy, after all, if even apps on iPhones are reporting back to thousands of sites while you sleep, and Chinese manufacturers send data back to all kinds of domains you’ve never heard of, what choice is there but to embrace the fact that there exists, on a server, somewhere (or more likely, multiple servers) a near-complete digital composite of you. All these datapoints from the multitude of services you are likely a part of will tell anyone who’s looking what you weigh, what time you really fall asleep at night (also, which porn video is the last one you see each night, and how well or badly you sleep), how well you’re eating,and if you’re likely to keel over during spinning class this week. That’s not even including the shadow profile Facebook has on you even if you don’t have an account.
I’m deeply aware of the irony, though. I have an IoT camera to monitor my kids once they get home from school, smart bulbs follow my routines and turn on and off every day, my home router pings me whenever their devices try to access social media sites I’ve blacklisted, and I go over their installed apps on their phones every month. I’m entrenching the normalisation of surveillance culture in my own home – at the same time I’ve paid for a leading VPN solution and I’m rabidly paranoid about using Firefox’s multi-account containers for different segments of my life. It’s almost nonsensical and self-defeating.
If it sounds tiring, that’s because it is. There’s a different level of cognitive load that a parent who is trying to keep up has to face. What is Tik Tok? Should the kids have their own Instagram account? Who’s messaging them on WhatsApp? Is installing TrueCaller too much? I understand if many parents just give up figuring out any of it. It is tempting to just hand over the trust to the myriad of service providers and app creators and phone manufacturers because in all honesty, who has the time?
The problem is that if we don’t make the time, the possible dangers get amplified maybe tenfold. Media literacy is probably one of the most important skills for children to have, right after you teach them how to cross the road safely. It is in fact, the exact analog – by not embedding these skills in them now, they risk losing all their analytical and evaluation skills which arguably means they stand to lose it all to scammers and government propaganda. Everything becomes face value, but what currency does that have now when deepfakes are getting better, the government decides which opinion you should have about palm oil and GANs can create people who do not exist?
We can’t trust the wisdom of age, not any more. Baby boomers and the generation preceding them have no way of navigating through this morass. They’re probably the worst-equipped to handle the deluge of misinformation (as evident in all our WhatsApp family groups). The last frontier isn’t space, or Mars, or the deep sea. It’s our children’s mindspace. Colonise it succesfully and you can make the world believe a million people are not being kept in a city-sized concentration camp. Give them the tools to weigh, evaluate, and analyse, and maybe some of us have a shot at making things better.