For more than half of my life I have had faith in the potential of social technology to change the world for the better — making all of us happier, ending worldwide conflicts, eliminating poverty and funding medical research. But there is no guarantee that the tools and techniques invented will be used only for good. Now there is a very dangerous technique, Recursive Exhaustion, which can be used for the very large scale collection of social data.
This data can (and will) be collected automatically without people’s knowledge or permission. It will be used to collect information on people who do not use computers. It will be used to collect information on people whose friends and family do not use computers. It will be used to collect information on young children. Even children who have never seen a cellphone.
On the one hand, this could be a very good thing. Having a lot of information about poor people or refugees in distant countries could make it possible to direct governmental and non-governmental aid to the most needy without delay. It could also be used for all the other worthy goals discussed on these websites. On the other hand there will be a complete loss of privacy. Unless kept out of the wrong hands, this information will leave individuals wide open to blackmail and intimidation.
I hope that this is not already being done. It is almost impossible to stop. Perhaps it could be used by law enforcement officers to find the people abusing it. That would mean governments around the world using this technology, justifying their use of it by the need to stop the new wave of crime. I cannot bring myself to trust even the most benevolent democratic government with an overwhelming amount of information about everybody. The prospect of every government in the world using it scares me.
Using recursive exhaustion for the very large scale collection of social data means acquiring vast amounts of information about every person in the world, including children. The idea of governments run by self-obsessed dictators having so much knowledge about people in truly civilized free world countries terrifies me.
I am sorry to say that I have had a hand in this, discovering or more likely rediscovering it. On reflection I must assume other people know of what I call recursive exhaustion. I hope they are not using it, but I must assume they are.
So what can I do? Aside from my usual attempts to come up with new ideas by writing fiction, all I can do is warn people. Consider yourself warned.