Sorry, this got really long, and the back half is about 2020 national electoral politics, so feel free to ignore as much as pleases y’all
This might sound naive, but I think we can to some extent walk away from things as they are now. I know it’s not that simple, and collectively walking away probably entails a more actually democratic social organization than we have now so we can make group decisions and stick to them and not suffer under power disparities that can disregard the decisions.
The “domination and authority” chapter in Anarchy Works has some examples of people walking away from society entirely. Some of these examples are people fleeing for the hills to set up a more distributed, harder to control society or societies. I guess part of the problem with powerful data gathering systems is that they can index and control you whether you want them to or not, but not actively participating maybe limits what they can do to you?
These might be really basic incarnations of what you’re thinking about, but recently I’ve been thinking about two cases: 1) worker pay opacity, especially for freelancers and 2) Bernie Sanders’s organizing app for his supporters.
Number 1 is a problem even for traditional employees, but at least if you work in an office and you are willing to broach the taboo, you can turn to the person next to you and say, “I make $20K a year. How about you?” I think it’s harder when you’re freelance (a writer for example): you’re very isolated, and you have no idea if there’s even a standard pay scale half the time when you’re being offered flat fees for stories. One of the really promising possibilities of emerging freelancers’ unions is aggregating pay information from members that are accessible to all. That’s the first step for agitating for better pay, I think.
In 1), what are the risks of aggregating this information ourselves? It’s information that the “vectorialists” already have, that we suffer for not having. This seems solely beneficial to me, but maybe I’m not thinking of something. In any case, if we want to move through/past capitalism, radical transparency about how it affects those of us at the end of the chain seems really vital.
Number 2 is more of a case study I want to think through.
I might not have all my facts straight, so please take this provisionally and correct me if you know better. Bernie’s new app allows you to punch in people you know and contacts you make. They verify the contact’s identity (using generally but not universally available voter data, it may even be from Democratic Party databases but I’m not positive about this). You can register some data about your contacts, like their intended vote.
The app announcement got a huge amount of blowback from (what I would generalize as) centrist or center-left voters, who claimed it was a privacy invasion and a harassment tool in the making.
All the information in the app’s database is from voter information readily available to political campaigns; AFAIK Democrats and Republicans have built their own aggregated databases of voters, positions, contact instances, etc. Anyone who’s actually done this, please correct me, but I’m pretty sure that when campaigns have you canvass, they are updating the campaign’s database based on the canvassing contacts you make while pounding pavement.
There was an accusation on Twitter that I’m unable to verify that for a few hours, you could use browser dev tools to see the voter ID number for anybody you entered as a contact. Is this an important breach? What is it possible to do with somebody else’s voter ID number? I’m not really sure.
So here’s what I’m thinking about when it comes to this: is this kind of widely (but not universally!) available voter information bad or good? The major parties have very intensely built databases of this stuff; on the Republican side, this is what Cambridge Analytica and other efforts were supposed to benefit. On the Democratic side, Obama’s 2008 app and his 2012 app both used similar features, the 2012 app linked with Facebook and had field canvassing features.
Campaign organizers would probably tell you collecting and storing information like this is vital to be able to track who is an important voter, to be able to follow up with them, encourage them and make sure they are able to get out to vote, and to know how they’re doing when it comes to disseminating the campaign’s message.
Maybe it’s good that this information isn’t universally available. I’m pretty sure but not 100 percent positive that it includes voter registration addresses, which is obviously easily abused if it were in a public database that anybody could look up (the Sanders app just tells you if someone is registered, not their address or party affiliation).
But the two major parties take basic state voter roll data and build their own much more detailed databases on top of that; this data isn’t available to non-major-party candidates or even major party candidates that the party establishments don’t like or have decided to ignore. The Sanders campaign, for example, had a fight with the Democratic Party over equitable voter data sharing in 2016.
The data aggregation efforts of the major parties probably don’t even approach, say, health insurance companies. (Although it’s entirely possible health insurance companies could start selling their wearable device data to political actors?)
So is this level of voter information aggregation good or bad? Is it bad that the two wealthy major parties have intensely developed databases of this information? Would it be improved if it were more publicly available? My understanding is that it’s essentially publicly available to state governments, the federal government, and campaign staff above a certain level, so it’s essentially public but not universally distributed.