The news that police may have finally found the Golden State Killer by matching DNA samples to an public online genealogy database came as a surprise to most who heard the story last week, including, it seems, the co-creator of the database itself.
Following the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, the 72-year old suspect in the decades-old case, Curtis Rogers, co-creator of the genealogy site in question, GEDMatch, said: “I had no knowledge this was happening.”
Call it a slogan for the era of the personality internet. A period online where we operate virtually unaware of what’s happening online, and where we ask few questions about how our information is used, just so long as some invisible algorithm promises to reveal deep truths about our lives.
This is the root of the current existential crisis about the internet: our insatiable desire for the machine to tell us who we are.
It was the vague promise of a personality assessment via a Facebook quiz that revealed the possibility that individuals could be subject to micro-targeted political messages. It was the vague promise, too, of discovering deeper truths about personal history that likely prompted distant relatives of an alleged serial murderer to upload their DNA data to an online database.
We treat the internet like a fortune teller. It’s going to end badly.
We got here in part thanks to the rules that govern our online behaviour — the literal documents that broadly outline how our information will be used, as well as the expectations sites or platforms have for how we’ll conduct ourselves within their walls. These terms of service present us with complex information, but offer only the most simplistic option in deciding how to proceed: we can opt in or out. Choose the latter, and we can’t participate; choose the former and we participate without any clear idea of what that means.
The information imbalance presented by these agreements has been under scrutiny by privacy and technology experts for years. In 2011, Helen Nissenbaum, professor of media, culture, and communication and senior fellow in the Information Law Institute at New York University, called it the “transparency paradox”: that is, the more information we’re given in the terms and conditions about how our data might be used online, the less understandable the document becomes.
This paradox is in some ways now applicable to the modern internet as a whole — a system that is built upon increasingly precise information (be it personal data, browsing histories, purchases, or the exact number of seconds we watched a video), but whose operations have become ever more vague. The broader transparency paradox we face currently is one wherein the more we tell the internet — the more data we feed in — the less we actually understand how it works.
And yet, the more we are convinced that it understands us.
In the way that it collects our information and purports to uncover mysterious truths about us, the internet operates like any other run-of-the-mill fortune teller. It’s the same old grift — a lopsided hustle of the unsuspecting information-hungry crowd ready to divulge everything from our everyday whims and fleeting concerns, to our darkest secrets and histories.
Served back to us from our dark screens, concocted by the invisible algorithms, we believe the internet’s insights to be somehow more profound than any we might conjure on our own. And so we want the machine to know everything. But, fundamentally, we don’t really understand how it works — how the information we put online about ourselves is used, how it is matched, manipulated, and connected to what everyone else is simultaneously feeding in. So what ends up in front of our faces, the things the internet purports to know about us — who we are, where we come from, what’s in store for us, etc. — just looks like magic.
It’s easy to become entranced, even addicted. It’s easy to keep going back for more, continuing even as it slowly dawns that it might ultimately be an emotionally unsatisfactory pursuit. We are spellbound, enticed that just one more visit might unveil something new, and end our quest for ultimate insight.
And, in a manner of speaking, continuing along this path will get us what we want — just perhaps not in the way we want it. Eventually, our fortune telling machine will indeed know all. The computers that fill our lives will have access to thousands, perhaps millions, more data points from which to influence everything we see and know, and perhaps even what we do, or the decisions we make. But things will only get more unfamiliar at that point.
The ongoing discussion about alleged dark psychographic profiling and DNA matching is only a taste of what’s to come — as is the uneasy feeling it has created.
In the past few months, we’ve caught a glimpse of how the trick works; how the information we’ve revealed is used to influence us in ways we didn’t expect, and how we may have been willingly deceived. It’s like we noticed the fortune teller steal our wallet before pretending to know our name. And while we’re uncomfortable and suspicious, we’re not quite willing to end the séance.
But if we don’t, the path forward won’t end with a truer vision of ourselves. We won’t attain enlightenment or revelation. At the end of this is, instead, a world where data is not a part of who we are, but instead governs and defines who we are with its cold logic and rigid constraints. At the end of this journey is a confusing system that is assumed to be all-knowing, but that lacks wisdom, is incapable of thought, or of conceiving of a reality beyond its data points. Today, the databases know your DNA or that you have a car loan. Tomorrow the databases will know you even better, but you won’t get anything more out of it other than knowing your car loan will be granted or denied based on your DNA.
Take stock of this current, unsettling feeling — of the moment when you notice how the trick is performed. That feeling we have now, as we grapple with the possibilities of how our data is really being used, and what can be done with it unbeknownst to us, is how we may soon feel all the time: living in a reality that always feels one step removed from what’s really going on, and where we have even less knowledge of what is happening.