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Reaching the age of surveillance

The digital revolution has dazzled us so much that we haven’t considered its downside

By David Wilson

Late in the summer, I had a chat with a Grade 8 teacher about the coming school term. She observed that this would be a milestone year in her classroom: babies born at the dawn of the millennium were entering their final year of elementary school, preparing to move on to high school.

I asked her what these kids are like. “Totally tech,” she replied, describing how cursive writing has given way to the computer keyboard. Arithmetic is something you do on a calculator, not on sheets of foolscap. And no one copies notes from the blackboard; they take pictures with their smartphones instead.

Her observations echo the findings of a new study by the Pew Research Center in the United States. The polling organization found that 95 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds are online, and that about three-quarters of them use a mobile device such as a cellphone, smartphone or tablet. Smartphone ownership alone jumped 14 percent in just one year between 2011 and 2012, and one in four teens said they owned an iPad or some other kind of tablet.

Different generations wear different labels. My parents grew up in the 1930s and were forever Depression babies. Officially, I’m a baby boomer, but having grown up in the Cold War, I tend to think of myself as belonging to the duck-and-cover generation. The millennium-baby generation, whom marketers have begun to call generation Z, will be the first to be connected to the digital world from cradle to grave. If it seems like teens are inseparable from their devices today, think ahead 25 years. It’s no longer a stretch to imagine users being permanently attached to their digital devices, as if they’ve grown a new limb.

My conversation with the Grade 8 teacher took place as a diplomatic tug of war continued over the fate of Edward Snowden, the American tech worker who blew the whistle on a vast program of foreign and domestic surveillance carried out by U.S. security agencies in co-operation with intelligence organizations in a number of other countries, including Canada. The revelations are far-reaching and complex, but they boil down to this: if you participate in the digital world, you can be watched. There’s a good chance you already are.

I’ve long worried that the unfolding wonders of the digital revolution have us so dazzled that we haven’t really paused to consider the downside. We can’t say we haven’t been warned. American lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald has been raising alarms for years about technology and the erosion of personal freedom and privacy. In his 2009 novel The Dying Light, British journalist Henry Porter imagines a not-too-distant England that bears a chilling resemblance to the surveillance state described in Snowden’s disclosures.

High-level reassurances notwithstanding, it’s pretty clear the surveillance state is here to stay. The implications are enormous for everyone, but especially for young people, who will live and breathe in cyberspace all their lives. We need to do a much better job of teaching them that the gadgets that create so much freedom in their lives can also be used to take it away. In addition, we need to better educate them about the values on which our democracy is founded. Unless they know what freedom really means, where it came from and at what cost, they may not miss it when it’s gone.

While we’re at it, we might consider reminding everyone that omniscience is the business of God or whatever higher power one recognizes. It is not the business of the state.  

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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