Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff calls it “surveillance capitalism.” And as creepy as Facebook is turning out to be, the entire industry is far creepier. It has existed in secret far too long, and it’s up to lawmakers to force these companies into the public spotlight, where we can all decide if this is how we want society to operate and — if not — what to do about it.
Schneier on Security – Facebook and Cambridge Analytica
If you’re on Facebook, you are living on Mark Zuckerberg’s bounty.
This is of course a choice you are free to make. The problem comes when, by living in conditions of such dependence, you forget that there’s any other way to live—and therefore cannot teach another way to those who come after you. Your present-day social-media ecology eclipses the future social-media ecology of others. What if they don’t want their social lives to be bought and sold? What if they don’t want to live on the bounty of the factory owners of Silicon Valley? It would be good if we bequeathed to them another option, the possibility of living outside the walls the factory owners have built—whether for our safety or to imprison us, who can say? The open Web happens outside those walls.
Reading the recent reporting on Facebook’s data breach, I returned to this thoughtful essay in The Hedgehog Review by Alan Jacobs. There’s not much of it, if any, I find myself in disagreement with; and in the suggestions he makes towards becoming ‘a citizen of the open Web’ it feels quite useful and significant.
What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.
I’m left wondering what will happen when and if this $450 billion penny drops.
John Lanchester, LRB
I’m not so sure people don’t realise. And of those that do perhaps it’s just they don’t care or, more like it, is they don’t mind, have learnt not to mind? So two billion monthly users is not only Facebook’s biggest achievement to date, that is too.
There was an article on AI in last week’s Sunday Times with the headline Robot wars: if we can’t beat them, let’s become them. It’s behind a paywall but some excerpts:
The truth is that Bob, Alice and Tay [AI programs) were straws in a wind that could, one day soon, blow humans off the planet
New machines could soon wipe out millions of jobs
As one technologist put it to me: “You can be confident your laptop isn’t going to strangle you, but it might with the help of your fridge.” We already know what the bad bots can do to our bank accounts
The article carries on in this vein. The writer, Brian Appleyard, does briefly offer up a counter view through Luciano Floridi but concludes:
Maybe he’s right. Or maybe one day soon our cars and fridges or future Bobs, Alices and Tays, talking gibberish, hating feminists and supporting Hitler, will decide that we’re just getting in the way
This type of article (it just so happens to be the most recent one I’ve read, though it is probably the guiltiest) only leads to what Tom Chatfield – a writer whose even handedness when writing about technology I really like – calls the dead end of human vs machine panic. It’s a dead end because it doesn’t encourage conversation, or reasoning, it just serves to set people to anxiety and worry.
I was left with this feeling that we are all still borrowing money we don’t have to spend on stuff we don’t need – we are still dancing on the deck of the Titanic
As voice-command purchasing is enabled as default on the Echo devices, some viewers’ Alexa units interpreteded Patton’s words as a command, resulting in a series of additional dollhouse dispatches
These two quotes are taken from the new issue of Delayed Gratification, a magazine which again I’d recommend. The first is from Laura Greenfield, a photo journalist, “who has spent 25 years documenting dept, the growth of consumerism and the rise, fall and rise again of the super-rich”; the second from a regular feature in DG, The butterfly effect, which in this issue shows how a derailed banking career in C19 Vienna led to the mass online ordering of dollhouses in January 2017.
Feature followed article and I felt the two quotes, by accident or design, highlighted and complimented each other nicely.
We often imagined video calls. And although they’ve been around forever, doing one from a mobile phone, or a desktop computer, never felt quite as futuristic as this pulsing thing in my kitchen that’s always watching me, and always listening, ready to do what I tell it.
There’s quite a bit to mull over in this piece on Amazon’s new Echo Show. But two questions come to mind after reading the above quote:
- What is this feeling of feeling futuristic; and
- how much are we willing to give up to feel it?
Personally, as it currently stands, I’m not so sure I could shrug off all that the reporter discusses having to shrug off merely for a hazy notion of feeling (and/or being perceived as) futuristic.
Conversations are moving more and more into Facebook. In order to continue to participate, I’d have to accept Facebook’s philosophy, which includes the idea that third parties would pay to be able to spy on me and my family in order to manipulate what shows up on the screen in front of us
You might view my access to musical instrument forums as an inconsequential matter, and perhaps it is, but then what is consequential about the Internet in that case? You can replace musical instruments with political, medical, or legal discussions. They’re all moving under the cloak of a spying service.
You might further object that it’s all based on individual choice, and that if Facebook wants to offer us a preferable free service, and the offer is accepted, that’s just the market making decision. That argument ignores network effects. Once a critical mass of conversation is on Facebook, then it’s hard to get conversation going elsewhere. What might have started out as a choice is no longer a choice after a network effect causes a phase change. After that point we effectively have less choice – Jaron Lanier
This is one of the points made by Lanier in his book, Who Owns The Future?, that has stayed with me. Mainly because it’s a point I feel I’ve had most first-hand experience of, particularly recently.
Facebook is a platform that seems to divide people into those who do have a problem with it, those who don’t or think the situation “unwinnable”, and those who are (more or less) pragmatic. But putting this aside for a moment, I’ve been looking for alternatives to participation off Facebook; looking for those places elsewhere where the conversations can be had.
Micro.blog seems promising, which then led me to the IndieWeb. But in the short-term (and other suggestions are most welcome) it seems just checking blogs, websites and, if you’re lucky enough, finding events to attend is the way to go. So I guess I’m nor in or out, but just hoping to participate in another way.
In any case, what both VanderMeer’s Borne and Roberts’s Bête do is describe a future (far future in one case, near in the other) in which human beings live permanently in an uncanny valley, where the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman are never erased but never quite fixed either, so that anxiety over these matters is woven into the texture of everyday experience. Which sounds exhausting. And if VanderMeer is right, then the management of this anxiety will become focused not on the unanswerable questions of what is or is not human, but rather on a slightly but profoundly different question: What is a person? – things and creatures, conscience and personhood
Alan Jacobs, insightful as usual, on his Text Patterns blog.