Digital Society
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Digital Society

Being Torn Between ‘Want it All’ and ‘Leave me Alone’ — Digital Edition.

Can I have a show of hands? Raise your hand if you can tell you are feeling 100% positive about advancement of technology — that you think it will propel us only further, towards better future, with no negative side effects.

Is your hand in the air? Are you conflicted? Not sure? Good. Mine is not (fully) up either.

Let’s discuss.

Have you heard of smart cities? If not, smart cities are an area of innovation which “uses information and communication technologies to increase operational efficiency […] and improve both the quality of government services and citizen welfare.

Smart cities promise a lot of things. Better traffic management — to avoid congestions. Parking problem solution — so that drivers do not have to circle around the city centre to find one. Waste management — bins are emptied when they are full, rather than on a scheduled day. Emissions reduction — by monitoring where the rates are the highest and then micro-managing the areas. Crime rates reduction — by smart home security systems, or ‘gunshot screener.’

Photo by Sean Foley on Unsplash

The ambitions of smart cities are very noble. They aim to improve the quality of life of its citizens (and visitors), and manage natural resources and waste more effectively in an effort to help tackle the climate crisis — Copenhagen, for example, aims to become the first carbon neutral city by 2025 using its smart city gadgets.

Beliefs that initiatives of smart cities will secure sustainability and improved quality of life prevail among the general public. The same applies to my peers, the students enrolled in the Digital Society module, as 77% of them expressed they hold positive sentiments towards smart cities.

How?

Smart cities make use of large number of sensors carefully installed across the city. Further, they monitor smartphones and other smart devices that people inhabiting the city use. The data collected from these gadgets are sent to high-speed communication networks. The raw data are processed, compared, combined, and translated into insights, and alerts that allow for better city management and change of citizens’ behaviour, so that the city experience is seamless. So, the true power of smart cities lies within linking data from various sources that would not usually be used and analysed side-by-side.

‘If there is one ingredient that makes a city smart, it is data’

And ah, here is the catch — data. Did you flinch just like me?

Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash

It is natural. People are becoming hypersensitive about their digital presence. Mintel reports that over 70% of people are concerned about sharing data regarding their personal information, financial data, content of personal messages or location — due to potential misuse. And it is not only the traditional ‘older generation’ who thinks that. My peers, students enrolled in the Digital Society module, think the same, and claim that everyone should have the right to privacy within the cyberspace. This usage of big data is no longer about marketing and driving up sales — as has been proven by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The implications and possibilities stretch far beyond that and reach the realm of shifting one’s behaviour without noticing.

Why?

So why am I saying this? Well, as Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard scholar specialising in what she calls ‘surveillance capitalism’, says that everyone wants a piece of your behavioura piece of your data. While Zuboff’s words tended to apply (not exclusively) to one’s digital engagement, with the introduction of smart cities, we are essentially blurring the line between online and offline. You can delete your social media account, use Tor as your primary search engine, or even turn off your phone.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

But you cannot stop living in a smart city, if that happens to be your permanent area of residence, and you cannot stop commuting to work, walking down the streets, or using water and heating. The benefits of living in a smart city come with the cost of persistent surveillance at a granular scale. The presumption is better life and urban management, but questions such as:Are our data stored securely?’ ‘Who has the ownership over them?’ ‘Is there a guarantee they will not be repurposed for any other intentions?’ remain unanswered.

What?

I am not saying that smart cities are an evil concept carefully crafted for 24/7 unethical surveillance of their citizens and everyone should boycott them. After all, information such as: how long has the vehicle you are in remained stationary in the traffic, or where your car is parked is not that sensitive.

Photo by Adrian Williams on Unsplash

The questions above do not have a clear answer. The premise of smart cities it to treat peopleas sensors, and not as things to be sensed.” To make sure this is adhered to, a call for honesty and transparency is more important than anything else on in this new ‘digital-analogue’ world.

Arup proposes set of criteria to achieve so, the most important being: honesty about risks and benefits and privacy as a priority. This would involve responsible usage of algorithms, ensuring that commercial partners adhere to ethical conduct. But most importantly smart cities need to establish governance and develop contingency plans — to make sure that the cities have the resources to control and manage the sourced data properly. Smart cities’ supply chain is immense, interconnected and fragile — its failure might potentially be caused by the smallest component. And if this were to happen, the most affected ones would be the most vulnerable ones — citizens.

Photo by Sawyer Bengtson on Unsplash

Wrapping up.

So, I am torn. I love my technology, I cannot not love my technology. It makes my life — everyone’s life — so much easier. And many more exciting things are promised to happen in the future. But I am doubting it as well. I am very aware of all the potential nefarious things that might happen with this rapid advancement.

So, I am torn. And that is, in my opinion, rational. And OK. We are all human (hopefully?) after all, and it is only natural to be scared of the unknown — and it is also good, and healthy to be scared and doubt it. For the sake of better future.

Reflections and what not.

When I enrolled into Digital Society, I did not expect to learn something brand new, ground-breaking, or eye-opening. Please do not get me wrong, I can explain!

The reason for this would be that the course I am doing dabs into marketing waters. During my Marketing lectures, we have quite extensively discussed digital marketing especially, and everything that comprises and fuels it — one’s digital presence, usage of big data, Internet of Things, and the ethical implications of these.

Further, my lovely boyfriend of 4 years is very passionate about this topic. He makes sure to supply me (nearly on a daily basis) with all the new stuff, exciting stuff, and disturbing stuff about digital innovation — reporting everything with a pinch of salt, while ironically humming ‘technological advances really bloody get me in the mood(a line from Arctic Monkey’s song, written by the brilliant Alex Turner). That particular line has become one of his catch phrases over the years.

In short: I was already very aware of a lot of upsides and (even more) downsides of cyberspace. What the topics explored throughout this semester made me realise is that the clear distinction between online and offline life is increasingly becoming blurred. I have started thinking about it in week 2 when working my way through the ‘Engagement’ topic — particularly when discussing ‘digital versus analogue’ communication. At that point, we were still able to distinguish to some extent the former from the latter. The realisation, however, sank in at the topic of ‘Smart Cities’ — what really is digital and what is analogue in such tech microcosm? This question I asked myself made me explore it even further and make it the centrepiece of this article too in the end.

Another thing that the Digital Society course made me realise, is that I very much enjoy writing for the general audience. I have come to this realisation when working on the assignments, which were required to be written in a blog post style. Although this came like a fresh breeze, after the countless purely academic essays I have written, it is not the greatest realisation, especially since I plan to stay in the humanities field of academia for a good few more years.

The greatest realisation for me was that I was able to link and intertwine the knowledge gained from Digital Society’s topic to the contents of my course — which revolve around management of hospitality, tourism, and events. This came to me when I was working through the digisoc2 assignment guidelines: discuss the challenges and opportunities of an organisation or sector in the context of technology and digital media. I thought: Oh, maybe I could try to relate it to tourism? I certainly did try. I did end up writing a piece about digitalisation of tourism — and it was great fun, and very insightful, and I loved it.

I did learn something brand new in the end. And it would not be without Digital Society’s clear and comprehensive learning modules (topics) that helped me to finally sort out the fragments of knowledge and thoughts about the digital world.

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Exploring how digital technologies shape society: challenges, themes and implications. Featuring student and staff writers. Views expressed are those of their authors and not necessarily the University of Manchester.

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Nadja Moncolova

Nadja Moncolova

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