Each generation responds to the great threats and opportunities of its time and place. For my father, Indian Independence (1947) and World War II (1939-45) shaped his view of the world, and how his family and friends were to live. It also meant where they could live, grow and benefit in a reconstructed world order, where institutions of government, the rule of law, the emergence of human rights and individual rights, and a stable and just economic order were fundamental to human existence. For many decades and not quite a century, we have all benefitted from the sacrifice and efforts of the “greatest generation”.
Approximately 80 years have passed and as we are preparing to enter the third decade of the 21st century, we are experiencing a global crisis in the form of a pandemic that has shocked the existing economic order, infected millions of people worldwide, exposed deep stresses within the institutional apparatuses of some governments, and uncovered the vulnerability and independence of multilateral institutions.
Within this world, geospatial technologies and data have flourished. From places in Space, the sky, on the ground, and in the air, technologies were deployed to address national ambitions as well as individual well-being. For much of the 20th century, emphasis on distributive capitalism helped create a rising tide that lifted many from poverty and sickness and into better (although admittedly far from perfect) states of existence. These technologies were also at play during the COVID-19 pandemic, as thousands of applications were developed and deployed to track the incidence of the virus. Geospatial leaders, particularly in the private sector, spoke glowingly of how their technologies were able to respond to the great threat of our time. But few, if any, spoke about the risk of these “human” focused applications to individual citizens and the post-war balance between the need for collective action and protection of individual rights.
Some observers of capitalist economies and the intersection of geospatial technologies have advanced the term “surveillance capitalism” to describe the silent and unspoken threat emanating from the grand global geospatial opportunity of the 21st century. Massive volumes of data are being created and shared via a wide variety of technology platforms. Data entrepreneurs have been able to analyze and monetize reams of data, including data about individuals, to push individual consumer behavior towards profitable outcomes. Data activists are employing technology and data to disrupt existing social and economic paradigms, using the ability to attract and configure news and narratives to incite reactionary politics and thinking.
In such an environment, facts matter little and emotions matter more — leaving the politics of passion and the decline of reason. Fertile ground is thus being tilled for nationalistic and xenophobic politics. When complex location analytics and data are accessed by rogue nation-state actors, they are able to target local populations and disrupt political systems, representative politics, the inviolable principles of sovereignty of nation states, and the supremacy of the citizen. Supremacy in this new world order rests with those who own the machinery and data associated with surveillance capitalism.
Fundamentally, it bears note that surveillance capitalism is also skewed towards rich nations and multinational corporations, the latter who owe their allegiance to neither democracy nor citizens. Their allegiance rests with the accumulation of profit and capital, and heralds a new age where the data is rapidly being deployed as the lingua franca of technological imperialism. It is conferring to those owning the technology greater economic, social, political knowledge and power in the pursuit of selfish interest.
The post-Covid economic and social order should be at the center of the use of the technology and data which we showcase as having the power to save humanity. It is noteworthy that this technology and data are being quietly and aggressively monetized. We must recognize and speak out when the digital dream is devaluing the power and capability of our institutions of global order, national protection and sovereignty, and the primacy of the individual citizen.
It is time for our collective voices to emerge — not simply to glorify dashboards and electronic maps, but to ensure that our generation rises to meet the challenges. It also may require us to point out that those grand challenges are not the ones we are showcasing.