Anti-surveillance technology

cakefaceI recently gave a talk at CHI, the big HCI conference that explored how advertisers are targeting our subconscious, and what technology can do about it.

It was partly inspired by  some (old!) science fiction: Walden 2, a utopian science fiction book by the psychologist B F Skinner written in 1945, and Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited from 1958, reflecting on the real-world developments that echoed his dystopian classic written in 1931.

Even in 1958, Huxley found technological developments disturbing, denouncing a “psychological slave trade” of mass manipulation by governments and advertisers.

I argued that the situation is deteriorating, with increasingly pervasive tech giving advertisers only more opportunities to influence you beyond your conscious control. There are 3 trends that should concern you:

  1. the increased use of technology-driven behavioural targeting, i.e. the gathering ofuser interaction and other behavioural data and the use of it to personalise ads
  2. the recent rise in use of neuroscience-based physiological monitoring to fine-tune nonconscious responses to adverts
  3. a movement towards ‘native’ ads, ads that are concealed within content

What is to be done is the big question. My paper proposed a Design Fiction solution; a system that watches all the sources of influence that you encounter and gives you the opportunitity to reverse them. For example, if you are shown an unwanted ad for crisps, the system would later intervene to devalue that ad by juxtaposing an image of crisps alongside some maggots.

Yet the Design Fiction is only fiction. The sheer scale of the opportunites for advertisers to influence you makes it difficult to capture let alone reverse.

Brunton & Nissenbaum’s book on Obfuscation gives plenty of tips to fight back with noncompliance and evasion, while the Center For Human Technology campaigns for appropriate design standards and political pressure to free people from addictive tech. But perhaps, in the end, in the absence of legal restrictions on advertising, the only solution is some cold turkey: use less tech. How to help people do that is another interesting research problem :).

You can read the full paper here.

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