Bargaining with the Machine

Technology, Surveillance, and the Social Contract

Robert M. Pallitto

Cell phone apps share location information; software companies store user data in the cloud; biometric scanners read fingerprints; employees of some businesses have microchips implanted in their hands. In each of these instances we trade a share of privacy or an aspect of identity for greater convenience or improved security. What Robert M. Pallitto asks in Bargaining with the Machine is whether we are truly making such bargains freely—whether, in fact, such a transaction can be conducted freely or advisedly in our ever more technologically sophisticated world.

Pallitto uses the social theory of bargaining to look at the daily compromises we make with technology. Specifically, he explores whether resisting these “bargains” is still possible when the technologies in question are backed by persuasive, even coercive, corporate and state power. Who, he asks, is proposing the bargain? What is the balance of bargaining power? What is surrendered and what is gained? And are the perceived and the actual gains and losses the same—that is, what is hidden?

Bargaining with the Machine explores the contractual relationship between the user of a technology or service and the provider of it. A user of a technology or service is confronted with an ‘irresistible bargain’: in order to take advantage of the service the user must surrender some privacy by agreeing to surveillance measures. The user cannot alter the terms and has therefore only the option of rejecting the offer altogether, which comes at the cost of convenience. Robert M. Pallitto makes a convincing case that most people will enter the bargain without even considering the consequences or implications and that often the individual benefits are far less than the risks that can result from subjecting oneself to surveillance measures. The book contains excellent analysis and many fascinating insights that make it an important contribution to the study of surveillance.”

—Dr. Armin Krishnan, associate professor and director of security studies, East Carolina University

“With philosophical insight and social science circumspection, Robert M. Pallitto lifts the veil of plausibility from the injurious bargains we make with contemporary American culture.”

—Albert Borgmann, author of Real American Ethics: Taking Responsibility for Our Country

At the center of Pallitto’s work is the paradox of bargaining in a world of limited agency. Assurances that we are in control are abundant whether we are consumers, voters, or party to the social contract. But when purchasing goods from a technological behemoth like Amazon, or when choosing a candidate whose image is crafted and shaped by campaign strategists and media outlets, how truly free, let alone informed, are our choices?

The tension between claims of agency and awareness of its limits is the site where we experience our social lives—and nowhere is this tension more pronounced than in the surveillance society. This book offers a cogent analysis of how that complex, contested, and even paradoxical experience arises as well as an unusually clear and troubling view of the consequential compromises we may be making.

About the Author

Robert M. Pallitto is professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Seton Hall University. He is the author of In the Shadow of the Great Charter: Common Law Constitutionalism and the Magna Carta (Kansas).