Back when integrated circuits were safely ensconced in missiles, spacecraft and machine tools, information technology could take us to the moon or build better cars, but – as long as they didn’t blow us up – they didn’t seem destined to strip away the last of our humanity. But as information technology has emerged as a factor in everyday life, the threat to our autonomy and privacy as individuals has mounted.

This comes at a time when many, particularly the young, worship technology as a new kind of secular god. In a poll of British people, about as many said they trust Google to have their interests at heart as they do God. Apple, in particular, notes Brett Robinson, writer of “Appletopia,” has adherents who back their products with “fanatical fervor.”

Yet while information technology may bring many blessings, it also threatens our basic freedoms. Such concerns have existed for years, particularly in science-fiction novels like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 classic, “We,” which described a society where technology served to curb personal privacy and autonomy. Four decades ago, computer industry pioneer Willis Ware warned that the new communication technology, rather than simply making information more universally available, could also increase the “intensive and personal surveillance” of individuals.

Today we are well on the way of creating what David Lyons described as “a surveillance state” or a “surveillance society,” where those who control information include not only state players, like the National Security Agency, but also certain well-positioned private ones. The NSA scandal has made clear the extent to which the federal bureaucracy can, and does, use technology to keep track of our daily lives. If they can tap Angela Merkel’s cellphone, would it be surprising if they could also tell when was the last time you called your mother?

The New Big Brothers

Washington security mavens probably don’t care when was the last time I called Mom, but the supposed heroes of the information age – companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook – show an increasing appetite for all sorts of personal trivia. Google, a prime example of these intrusions and now the target of the EU, is hardly alone in pushing these violations of privacy. Consumer Reports has detailed Facebook’s pervasive, and often deepening, privacy breaches.

This ambition for harnessing information is breathtaking, as libertarian apologists look the other way, or even applaud their ambitions. These firms, more than the government, are the new Big Brothers. As Google’s Eric Schmidt put it: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

Some even see a day where our devices control our lives, determine our schedules, monitor our health and display a daily dose of computer-generated wisdom. Apple’s new devices, Wired recently noted, are aimed at “building a world in which there is a computer in your every interaction, waking and sleeping.” The ambition for control is remarkable.

Those oligarchs who make these machines and control this information hope this allows them to enjoy not only huge profits, but enormous, even unprecedented power. Far from being liberating and diffusing wealth, the emerging information economy, suggests technology analyst Jaron Lanier, has had a very different impact, creating “a new tiny class of people” who get to sit above us all at the top of the information pyramid.

Who’s at fault?

The emerging tech gods, like any plutocratic class, are both manipulative and powerful, and, thus, potentially dangerous. But they do not deserve all the blame. Much of the problem stems from our own laziness in dealing with the new technology, allowing these firms to monitor and control our lives to an extent that is dangerous both to the future of society and our political system.

Young people may be concerned about government intrusion, but are particularly susceptible to opening up their lives to both the corporate spysters and to the public, notes the Pew Research Center. Less than 10 percent of teenagers turned out to be “very concerned” about protecting their privacy rights, while 16 percent automatically share their locations while online.

There is a great danger from this mindless “sharing” of information. People who keep their communications open to all also open themselves to cyberbullying and cyberstalking. They also risk losing jobs over what they have posted online, which can follow them from school to the workplace. Others, by announcing to the world they are going out of town, or just leaving home, have provided an invitation for burglars and other criminals.

Build a new society

These risks don’t concern the social media firms, which benefit the most from the exposed lives of their users. This is one reason why Facebook in 2013 weakened its protections for minors, allowing teenagers to be followed online by any creep. Facebook justified this change by noting that teenagers are “among the savviest people using social media,” which simply suggests the site takes little responsibility for the potential damage done to their customers.

Being tech-savvy – as anyone with teenagers can attest – is not the same as having good judgment. To be sure, if adults want to surrender their privacy, they should have that right. But the intrusions into people’s private space represent a direct threat to the entire society. Furthermore, the fact so few companies dominate this field is particularly troubling, which is one good reason for the European Commission’s assault on Google and its dominance of the Internet search market.

Still, there may be only so much governments can do if people do not value their own privacy. Given the remarkable willingness to surrender even the most personal items to a prying public and the corporate oligarchy, one can conclude, as Pew has suggested, that living in public has already become “the default” for most young people. “Privacy,” it suggests, could prove just a “passing artifact of the Industrial Age.”

This evolution could threaten the complex network of personal association that has kept society intact for millennia. Traditionally, we have maintained different levels of intimacy between our family, friends and associates. Now these gradations appear to be dissolving. Social media may help us keep in touch with far-flung friends and families, but heavy users, suggests social media consultant Jay Baer, tend to have lots of “friends” but the fewest personal ties.

You can see this next time you go to a restaurant and watch millennials, supposedly sharing a meal, doing so while busily engaged on their personal devices. Many, particularly millennials, increasingly prefer “mediated communication” over “face-to-face interaction,” choosing to text rather than talk on the phone. “Friend,” as defined by Facebook, has little to do with friendship as understood down the centuries. After all, friends are people you talk with and spend time with in social settings; digital “friends” are, by definition, both ephemeral and noncorporeal.

So as we plug in more, we are becoming digitally detached, even from our own families. Rachna Jain, a psychologist specializing in marriage and divorce, notes that intimate ties rest on such non-Internet factors as proximity and shared experiences. Social media increasingly undermine these relations, threatening the primacy of family, religion and other kinship ties. In the end, we are left with everything exposed, but nothing sacred.

Increasingly, we confront a Silicon Valley-designed future where human labor and familial ties are subsumed by automata – computers, smartphones, watches and wearable devices – and this before the inevitable rise of robots. In having technology replace our most intimate ties, and undermine our basic privacy, we are in danger of creating, helter-skelter, the very society that science fiction has been warning us about for the better part of a century.

Originally published in the Orange County Register

Cross-posted at New Geography.