The Guardian view on digital giants: they farm us for the data: Editorial
Posted in: Surveillance & Privacy at 19/06/2017 21:30
An astonishing project is under way to build a “digital time machine” that will show us in fine detail the lives of ordinary Venetians across a thousand years of history. It is made possible by the persistence of the republic’s bureaucracy, which, when Napoleon extinguished the Republic of Venice in 1797, left behind 80km of shelving full of records of births, deaths, trades, building, land ownership, private letters, ambassadors’ reports and even medical information. All this is now to be digitised, cross-referenced, and analysed, and all its secrets laid bare to provide a picture in unprecedented richness and detail of the lives of individuals and the development of society over many centuries. Obviously, this is wonderful for historians and indeed anybody with an imagination alive today. One wonders, though, what the Venetians would have made of it, had they known their lives and letters would be so carefully anatomised after their deaths.
Far more is known about us now, though, and in real time. The data in the Venetian archives was unmatched in medieval and even early modern Europe, but it is only legend and scraps of hearsay compared to the knowledge of us accumulated by the giants of the digital economy – Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon – who all in various ways use the data harvested from their users to make billions of dollars, from advertising or from direct selling, or from some combination of both. Their knowledge of our intimate lives doesn’t wait two centuries or more until we’re dead. They get it live, in real time. Sometimes they know our minds before we know them ourselves. It’s a situation quite unprecedented in history.