The global datafication of economy, society and politics has rendered humans into constellations of datapoints. Technologies measure, monitor, predict and classify to enable personalization in the online and offline worlds alike, and we are increasingly offered bespoke realities: advertising, healthcare, government services, and recommendations uniquely targeted to us.
The price is persistent identification: everywhere we go and everything we do is tracked by private and public actors seeking to ‘resolve’ our identities and paint ever more granular pictures of us as both consumers and citizens. Our ability to remain anonymous is diminishing, as we’re asked to hand over our identification, our faces, our social media profiles, our email addresses at every turn.
What are the consequences of this death of anonymity? For some, anonymity is a necessary victim in the battle against online hatred and increasing political polarisation. Anonymity has a disinhibiting effect, particularly online, removing social and cultural constraints that might otherwise restrain commentators from making controversial, offensive or harmful remarks. Many have connected the seeming uptick in intolerance, incivility and hate speech to the proliferation of anonymous means of expression that the internet has enabled.
Yet a view of history reveals that anonymity has often been a protective cloak for those in need of protection for expounding valid critique, satire and challenge. Anonymity enables those in the minority, those who would normally stay silent, to speak out against the status quo without fear of reprisals. Without the protection of obscurity, dissenting views might disappear altogether, and along with them pluralistic societies, as public discourses homogenise, intolerance becomes mainstream, and populist leaders become increasingly emboldened by the absence of criticism.
If, in the words of the US Supreme Court, ‘anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority’, what does the loss of this value mean for art, political debate, protest, journalism, and education?
About the speaker
Carly Kind is the Director of the Ada Lovelace Institute, an independent research body and think tank with a mission to ensure data and AI work for people and society. A human rights lawyer and leading authority on the intersection of technology policy and human rights, Carly has advised industry, government and non-profit organisations on digital rights, privacy and data protection, and corporate accountability. She has worked with the European Commission, the Council of Europe, numerous UN bodies and a range of civil society organisations. She was formerly Legal Director of Privacy International, an NGO dedicated to promoting data rights and governance.
This talk was recorded online on Wednesday 4 November 2020.