Your phone alarm wakes you up and you get ready for work. You scan your face to use your phone so you can text your coworker that you’ll be late. You stop to get a coffee anyways, and you scan the QR code to enter the coffee shop. Your membership is still good. You order and go to pay, and the barista reminds you it is “card only.” You grab your coffee and go. Getting ready to cross the street, you notice a camera pointing right at you and everyone else on the corner. You think nothing of it — its for safety, after all. Remembering that you are running a bit late, you pull out Google Maps to look for a shortcut right from your immediate location…
That short scene may sound like a very typical day for a lot of people around the world, not just in the US. And because it seems typical, we accept it as the norm. And because the norm is always assumed to be right (how else would it get that way?), we let it remain without thought or concern. Perhaps it is time for that to change.
In 2023, people are starting to familiarize themselves with the idea of a digital prison, but what is it? The digital prison idea suggests that as a species, we are moving closer and closer to a state of society in which we will be asked, coerced, or even forced to utilize a digital identity to engage with aspects of life that we currently utilize freely, such as the internet, online and conventional shopping, voting, or accessing personal finances.
To many, the idea seems conspiratorial or generated from a paranoid science fiction novel, but some of the effects already permeate the “free” West. In some places, like China, this digital panopticon is already functioning in the form of a Social Credit System used to surveille, control, and conform China’s citizens into inert, malleable pawns of the state and everything it “provides”.
Like most issues in 2023, the digital prison is no different in that two loud voices on either “side” of the metaphorical aisle are speaking up in defiance or defense of the issue at hand. Some take no conscious consideration for what they identify as the flow of modern technology and its continued development. Those wary of the idea of perpetual digital bonds in society are those “paranoid” theorists. In the case of the digital prison, I see the validity in skepticism.
This issue permeates borders and cultures. It has no regard for personal preferences, religious or cultural beliefs. And the defenders of such an idea do not seem to know exactly what they are supporting. That is in part because the current effects are normalized, people are conditioned to accept them. As for the future terrors, they have yet to be fathomed or revealed.
There is clear rhetoric that divides the issue, however. For example, I have seen comments on TikTok — relating to the quiet revolts against Sadiq Khan’s Ulez System expansion in England — that go as follows:
“Why are the cameras a problem if you are not a criminal?” or “Why is it a problem if you have nothing to hide?”
Such rhetoric misses the mark entirely. The disagreement that anti-digital-prison folks have is not with the principles behind some of the 21st century’s technological developments, it is disagreement with the collective effect; the notion that an individual of a society — who might otherwise choose to be free and unrestricted from digital burdens — must also be forced into compliance in order to play “the game” that is civilization.
The Ulez System in the UK is a good example of this: I would imagine that most people in UK would agree that crime should be reduced and criminals held accountable; that a reasonable element of policing, patrolling, undercover work, and surveillance may even be acceptable to do so. What is not acceptable, however, is the establishment of a surveillance network, seeing everything all the time, that backlogs the personal lives, actions, and whereabouts of all of the UK’s citizens.
So we can see the problem here with rampant digital “progress”; there are great principles and functions being made by technology, but the employment of such capabilities is lacking the classic Jurassic Park treatment:
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
It is in this idea — the application of technology, and the potentially tyrannical and sinister goals behind it — that we return to the collective effects of various tech that define what the digital prison is.
Ulez alone may not have been such a big deal in the UK. After all, there are cameras at street lights, government buildings, museums, stores, banks and ATMs. People walk with cameras on their phones and take pictures and videos all the time.
But as an implementation alongside everything we currently have, it’s a bit much. Cell phones are a great example of the development of this fear. When they were originally created, they made the function of voice communications even more convenient. And technologies that do that tend to alter the fabric of society without a need to do so subliminally or subversively. In other words, because the thing (in this case cellphones) appears to be an unequivocal asset for the everyman of the modern era, it permeates into our lives without second thought.
And like a wrist-watch or pair of glasses before it, digital technology has woven itself — with little scrutiny — into the fabric of society on the grounds of improving the quality of life. In some ways, many ways in fact, it has done that. But the problem is the speed at which these things develop, and with that speed comes improper time for us to determine how to use the products.
Continuing with cellphones, the problem remained that they developed too quickly. Before we knew it, cell phones were also entertainment systems, our credit cards, our MP3s, our ledgers and address books, our maps, our news streams, our fitness trackers… The technology developed so quickly, so efficiently — and society with it — that to get by, any individual had to buy in.
That is the digital prison — unwilling consent to an inescapable lifestyle.
And if the principle of the fear is not enough, look at the application of it. In China, for example, there is a social credit system that bars people from jobs, schooling, eating or shopping establishments. The system even goes so far as to publicly shame Chinese citizens who maintain “insufficient” state scores. They go so far as posting their picture, ID information, and address to the public. The reason? To entice submission and compliance.
And once again, like the Ulez rhetoric, many will present the excuse that “That is in China, such a thing won’t happen here.” But it does. We have facial ID, thumb print scanners, grocery stores that can only be accessed by QR code or facial recognition. Some places are switching to digital payment altogether, and excluding the use of cash entirely. The WEF once entertained the idea of “prescriptive elections,” in which the need to vote would no longer exist because governing entities would already “know the result” through “data trends”.
In Canada, during the infamous trucker convoy, the Canadian government froze and seized the bank accounts of more than 200 of those truckers who were exercising their right to speak out against the government.
Another example to indicate the severity of the digital prison’s progress was during the pandemic when the US government worked alongside Google to access location services and determine if individuals were remaining in a prescribed place or not.
In China, drones were used to track groups or individuals. Spain soon followed suit during the pandemic when they allowed police to use similar tactics to — allegedly — crack down on the spread of COVID.
And aside from the examples we write off as acceptable because of “crisis,” it would appear that in the most subliminal and seemingly harmless ways, we have already taken the first plunge; we have already submitted ourselves to be molded by further effects of digitization.
In my opinion, the full-blown digital prison is nearing reality. There are zero indications that the companies who make the technologies are looking to make their platforms safer, less addictive, and less invasive. What is worse, there is also no indication that governments want to remain a healthy distance away from a society that is grafted to technology dependence.
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So what do you think? Are we nearing life in a digital prison? Are we there already? What are we currently subjected to? What will we be subjected to in the future? More importantly, what can we do to stop it?
Please, let me know in the comments.