Coping With the Risk of “Reality Theft”

There are circumstances where it is accepted that fooling each other is part of the game: for example, on the April fool's day. It is also societally acceptable to fool someone to his or her own advantage, for example with a surprise party on his or her birthday, or else to fool someone with his or her consent, for example in artistic performances, where it is particularly appreciated when the scenery and the performance is close to reality so that it is credible. However, beyond these very special circumstances, societies rest on a general consensus that fooling should be avoided, and there are many rules, institutions and infrastructures to outlaw and make life difficult to those trying to fool their peers. Fooling others is indeed breaching plurality. Beyond being inherently unfair, it leads to a “suspicion of all against all”, dissolves trust, prevents any form of togetherness and dissolves plurality. Fooling others knowingly and purposefully results de facto in a self-exclusion from the community of peers and from the ideal public space. These considerations hint to the fact that there is a link between trust, literacy and policy. It is part of literacy to distinguish socially acceptable fooling and unacceptable fooling. It is also part of literacy to be equipped to cope with or resist acceptable or basic fooling tentatives. In that respect, policy and regulation are only a complement to literacy and common sense.

With that modest attitude, it is important to rethink and actualise what fooling means in a hyperconnected era, particularly in view of the blurring between reality and virtuality[1]. There are at least two facets in this rethinking: (i) how do the “old” means of dealing with this issue survive in the hyperconnected world and (ii) are there new issues arising?

In the pre-digital world, the distinction between an original and a copy used to be a mean to counter fooling and to help each agent distinguishing “reality” from fake: in the digital world, the distinction between original and copy has lost the realistic dimension on which it has been established. Hence, for example, all measures that were built on this distinction need to be fundamentally rethought in a hyperconnected world, to avoid perpetuating outdated distinctions, which stop being effective and lead to the proliferation of an absurd complexity. This is only mentioned as an example; here is not the place for jumping to concrete policy recommendations. Beyond the dissolution of the distinction between original and copies, the hyperconnected era expands the possibilities for “reality theft”, in the following more fundamental way. In the pre-digital era, it is reasonably easy, for an agent, to distinguish if the environment encountered has been “made up” for, or tailored to, him or her. In these early days of the hyperconnected reality, where “we are all babies” when it comes to digital literacy, this distinction is much more difficult to make. Most of us are unable to distinguish if and when the price offered in an online environment or the result of a search depend from the use by the provider or by the search engine of personal data or profiling information, or if they would be the same for anybody else. Why does it matter? Let's compare this to a pre-digital situation by imagining the following situation: I walk around in a shopping mall and stop in front of a dress I find beautiful. Imagine that the more I look at the dress the higher the price! I would be enraged and walk away, because I have the means to notice it. This is part of the pre-digital mix of literacy, policy and regulation. In the online environment, there is no equivalent easy and commonsensical way to identify if, when the price goes up, it is because the last seats of that flight (if I am booking a flight) have been taken by others, or if it is because the operator is making use of my desire to buy a flight ticket to raise the price. It is my view that people are entitled to know, when engaging on the web, if the result of their search or the price offered to them is making use of information about them, or not28. It has to do with fairness and dignity, more than with privacy. It is also an enabler of plurality. There may be a role for policy-making to accompany and facilitate the deployment of an increased digital literacy, by ensuring that agents have the mean to orient themselves in a fair way in the online sphere and in the onlife experience. Here, the point is not to shape means of control, but rather to provide tools for enabling each one to orient him or herself.

  • [1] See Sect. 3A of the Onlife Background Note, Chap. 11.
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