Discover more from Missives from a Luddite
Ban Surveillance Capitalism
Do we have a right to privacy when we exercise what has become a 21st Century human right?
In Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff's academic paper, “Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization,” she writes that by 2010, 76% of people in 26 countries considered Internet access a fundamental human right.
This reality prompts the question: Do we also have a right to privacy when we exercise what has become a 21st Century human right?
It is increasingly difficult to exist as an American citizen unplugged. The Internet has increasingly found its way into every tentacle of our lives. Is it fair that we give away our privacy to Big Tech when we use services we depend on as a society?
While companies like Google extract our data with impunity, they handle the challenges to these privacy invasions by tying up litigants in courts and then agreeing to pay fines that “represent a negligible investment for a significant return.”
According to Zuboff,
“Big data” are constituted by capturing small data from individuals’ computer-mediated actions and utterances in their pursuit of effective life. Nothing is too trivial; or ephemeral for this harvesting: Facebook “likes” Google searches, emails, texts, photos, songs, and videos, location, communication patterns, networks, purchases, movements, every click, misspelled word, page view, and more.
Such data are acquired, datafied, abstracted, aggregated, analyzed, packaged, sold, further analyzed, and sold again. These data flows have been labeled by technologists as ‘data exhaust.’ Presumably, once the data are redefined as waste material, their extraction and eventual monetization are less likely to be contested.
In his book Stolen Focus the author Johann Hari refers to surveillance capitalism as “fracking.” Hari’s point is that sites like Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram use “exhaust” to inform their algorithms, which in turn determine what content you will be shown next. Importantly, they will use the most addictive exhaust they can find (regardless of whether that exhaust is good for you or not … it’s probably not). The determination is based on whatever content has been most effective at holding your attention. The algorithms are designed to serve as a recipe for what will entice you to stay on the platform as long as possible.
NYU professor and author Scott Galloway compares this attention “fracking” as the 21st-century equivalent to the 20th Century race to drill for oil. He argues that we have moved from an oil economy to an attention economy.
According to Galloway,
Economies are defined by scarcity, not abundance (scarcity = value), and in an age of information abundance, what’s scarce? A: Attention. The scale of the world’s largest companies, the wealth of its richest people, and the power of governments are all rooted in the extraction, monetization, and custody of attention.
For centuries, salesmen have been attempting to capture our attention, but where before, merchants used the printed page, television, and billboards to mine our minds, now, as Galloway suggests, there is a well in our pocket. In an essay called Attentive, Galloway makes his case.
Social media brought two major innovations. The first was to offload content production, and its cost, onto the user. No matter how efficient Netflix gets at producing shows in multiple languages, or how shamelessly Disney milks its existing IP, their economics are dwarfed by TikTok or YouTube, where consumers build the content drill rigs that the platforms monetize.
Next, the social media companies broadened the very notion of what content could be. Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit feature “content” in the traditional sense, but they turn the emissions (users’ comments) into content that’s still more valuable (addictive even) as it has more emotional resonance. By emotional resonance I mean they satisfy a deep need for others’ approval or they enrage us. The comments/replies, the pissing match, the rapidly brigaded insanity is what mines attention and emotion. It’s as if Exxon found a way to make heroin out of exhaust. Connecting the world has augured a simple question: Should we be this connected without having a commensurate presence? You’d never say (much of) this shit to people in person. And anonymity enables fake accounts and bad actors, which platforms tolerate so they can profit from greater noxious emissions.
Not only are the minds of the next generation being mined for profit, but they themselves are the content providers. They create the material of their own destruction and make these companies rich in the meantime.
This is an economic choice on the part of companies like ByteDance (TikTok), Meta (Facebook and Instagram), and Google. They choose to sell your data to the highest bidder. But it doesn't have to be this way.
Google is the origin story for these practices. Concerned about a subscription-based economic model that might hinder user growth, Google chose to adopt an advertising model. This approach depends on users' “exhaust” to produce the algorithms that sell and target advertising.
Google sells these targets through an auction model, their business model, and their customers are advertisers. The user, and their exhaust, are the product being sold. As Tristan Harris often notes, “if you don’t pay for the product, you are the product.”
Zuboff points to a 2009 article in the tech magazine Wired, on “Googlenomics” where Google’s own executive Hal Varian, the high priest of Googlenomics, put this into plain language.
“Why does Google give away products? Anything that increases Internet use ultimately enriches Google … more eyeballs on the Web lead inexorably to more ad sales for Google … And since prediction and analysis are so crucial to AdWords (Google’s auction platform), every bit of data, no matter how seemingly trivial, has potential value.”
Google often gives away products for free to collect this valuable “exhaust” from its users. Google Maps, for example, is given away for free to users for this reason; this also explains why Google outbid the competition to provide free Wifi for Starbucks locations.
Perhaps even more concerning about this extraction is the lack of transparency around the mining. These companies behave as magicians — stealing our focus with engagement, enragement, or FOMO while they drill, baby, drill.
Companies like Google, Meta, and ByteDance will not independently turn off this extraction model. They will need to be forced to do it.
This will require the government to intervene, which the government will only do with pressure from citizens. Those of us being mined for profit.
Thanks for reading! If you made it this far, and you’ve been enjoying Missives from a Luddite, please pass it on to a friend or two who you think might enjoy it too.