How do you discover the actual origin of a bug — such as ‘surveillance capitalism’ — when its history as a feature is all but lost? Could a better Wikipedia help?

 

bug or feature? photograph by JACKI HOLLAND postgutenberg@gmail.com

Bug or feature? (at the edge of the flower’s dark centre) The shadowy face of advertising aimed at us as individuals — ‘micro-targeting’ —  makes it hard to learn about its idealistic beginnings. Photograph: Jacki Holland

If Google did not invent the phenomenon now being referred to as  ‘surveillance capitalism,’ who did? part 2 ( part 1 is here

Is the digital revolution moving too fast for academics to keep up? You could call the question mission-critical because the (possibly) inadvertent errors of some scholars are influencing regulators and law-makers drawing up rules for the digital economy. It follows naturally from the last post here on pG , which pointed out that Shoshana Zuboff is wrong to declare that Google pioneered the milking of unsuspecting internet users for our data; the routine extraction of intimate information about us and our lives in a system that she and various others have for some time been calling surveillance capitalism. 

In a piece for Fast Company a year ago, Professor Zuboff said that Google invented it … 

… more than a decade ago when it discovered that the “data exhaust” clogging its servers could be combined with analytics to produce predictions of user behavior. At that time, the key action of interest was whether a user might click on an ad.

But the Pepsi market research project using electronic beepers described here last month had the identical, advertising-oriented aims and contained almost all the components of today’s commercial surveillance, even if its technological tools were less sophisticated and intrusive.

It was completed in 1996, two years before Google was even incorporated in September 1998. Pepsi deployed the beepers to track, survey and assemble detailed taste and preference profiles of 50,000 young customers, stretching far beyond their soft drink consumption, and traded this information with twenty other companies — which also used the data to design more powerful, less resistible, advertisements for their products through what eventually came to be known as micro-targeting. It was attacked by outside observers sounding exactly like today’s critics of commercial surveillance for intruding on the privacy of its project’s participants.

The secretiveness about tools and data-milking methods of Google and other search technology giants  — as well as virtually every other company doing business on the internet — has warranted  their deeply negative portrayal in the media and scholarship. But most of the critics condemning them either failed to explain — or simply did not know — that the unwanted bug that they constitute, collectively, was lauded almost a quarter-century ago as a benign, intensely desirable prospective feature of the internet as it began to take off.

In a 1997 interview published in Wired, Tim Berners-Lee actually made such a prediction after a question from his interviewer, Evan Schwartz, about whether the advertising already starting to saturate the web was one of the undesirable, ‘unexpected turns’ that his creation had taken:

… Marketing on the Web is going to be a lot more humane than marketing in traditional mass media because it’s possible to treat people individually. If I’m interested in buying a canoe, I can say, “Hey guys, I want a canoe.” I can float that onto the Web. Then other people can satisfy their own interests by selling me a canoe, not to mention inviting me to a newsgroup about good places to go canoeing.

Doesn’t that raise privacy issues?

My gut feeling is that one should be able to negotiate how one’s information is used …

Of course there is no such negotiation — an innovation we must hope can soon be regulated into existence — but you will not find those early thoughts of TB-L on the subject by typing ‘Tim Berners-Lee advertising’ into a search box. Search results reflect the marked shift in his opinion on the subject, encapsulated in a Google listing of a 2019 article in Fast Company in which he spoke out against ‘advertising-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait,’ and characterised these as one of ‘the web’s 3 biggest cancers’. 

This pG site’s reminder of that chat with TBL is a printout sitting in a cardboard box in a garage. Its neighbours in its file include notes from unpublished conversations with Silicon Valley executives the following year, in which they described rapidly evolving marketing methods closely coupled to product design and improvement tailored, like Pepsi’s, to swift feedback from customers — only far more frequent, and well on the way to becoming today’s nonstop monitoring. As senior marketing managers at a small software startup — selling a system used by employees of other companies — said:

Part of our beta process that we’re doing right now is we have customers actually giving us feedback on the product as we develop the product […] and the engineering is responding to it and we go back to the customers [… who are … ] essentially involved in our design with us. […] These people and what do they want is really what the issue is […] and we’re just monitoring it all the time. All the feedback goes into a web form and then, boom! gets screened like two or three times a day by product marketing and engineering to figure out […] major product changes or directions … 

Hunting for such information about Silicon Valley marketing in the Wikipedia entry titled ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ would do no good, even for those readers who make it past the excruciating, jargon-laden first sentence on its background — ‘the intensification of connection and monitoring online with spaces of social life becoming open to saturation by corporate actors, directed at the making of profit and/or the regulation of action.’ 

Neither is there any allusion to it except in the vaguest terms in the online encyclopedia’s pages devoted to ‘Digital Marketing’  or ‘Interactive Marketing.’ Under ‘Surveillance Capitalism,’**  there is no trace of optimistic early expectations for it, such as TB-L’s enthusiasm for ‘humane marketing’ — although the entry does make a passing reference to ‘self-optimization (Quantified Self)’ as an instance of ‘various advantages for individuals and society’ of ‘increased data collection’ — and whose own page describes ‘a community of users and makers of self-tracking tools who share an interest in “self-knowledge through numbers.”’ 

How could Professor Zuboff have missed a prototype as large and substantial as the Pepsi project, also unmentioned in any of those Wiki pages dedicated to high-tech marketing? She would have had to do field research in Silicon Valley to avoid her error of crediting Apple and Apple alone for capitalism tailored to the needs and predilections of individuals — passing over that swiftly in a strictly abstract, generalised passage of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019) about an evolutionary trend, beginning with Henry Ford, for companies to serve ‘the actual mentalities and demands of people.’ 

At one juncture in her book, she seems to be saying that she could not do any immersive research on the topic because Google, all too predictably, would not permit this: ’[O]ne is hard-pressed to imagine a Drucker equivalent [ Peter Drucker, the still unsurpassed Austrian-born theorist on business management ] freely roaming the scene and scribbling in the hallways.’ But Professor Zuboff plainly did not know enough to realise that Google was not the place to look for answers about the origins of the relentless commercial surveillance loop, or that there were rich sources of information about its practices elsewhere in Silicon Valley. 

How can scholars — and all the reviewers of her book who failed to correct her misattribution of its invention to Google — avoid this sort of mistake in future? Defects in our collective treasure-house of knowledge?

Could an even better version of the collaborative, still indispensable, still miraculously non-commercial Wikipedia be the answer? Larry Sanger, its co-founder, who long ago left that institution, has been hatching plans for an improvement he is calling the Encyclosphere, and outlined in a lecture at a conference in Amsterdam last autumn. He has promised generously to answer questions about it from almost any competent writer, and perhaps will tackle the pair in the header for this post.

** in a download on 3 March 2020

Social media critics who do not separate their objections are cooking up an anti-Big Tech jambalaya confusing regulators about the ‘surveillance capitalism’ that Google did not pioneer

 

social media postgutenberg@gmail.com

We have to discriminate carefully between light and dark elements of social media platforms

Here is an indirect reply to a tweet from @nikluac to @postgutenbergB, a few days ago  — which contained a link to a New York Times opinion piece by Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emerita of the Harvard Business School. Flashing red lights set off by a single paragraph in her essay led to post-Gutenberg.com [pG] ’s first investigation of Professor Zuboff’s hugely influential, best-selling book published a year ago, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. 

That work, which offers ‘little by way of a concrete agenda’ for internet-centred reform according to Evgeny Morozov, and other reviewers, is on a very different mission from this pG site — which argues for a specific scheme. The professor has succeeded uniquely and brilliantly at her task of so-called ‘consciousness-raising’. In seven hundred pages, her book explains and condemns the extent and precise mechanisms of what she and other analysts have named surveillance capitalism. 

It is the same phenomenon to which pG has been drawing attention since August of 2013  — with no claims of pioneering insight — in the course of campaigning for a proposal for the democratisation of publishing. This involved — in part — pointing out that like the Big Tech social media platforms, powerful newspapers were also spying on their readers without notification or consent. In posts here, digital invasions of privacy have been referred to variously as commercial surveillance or the surveillance business model — or, for anorexic attention spans incapable of absorbing more than a long header, as the ‘“free” surveillance/advertising-centred/data-cow business model’, or ‘the ‘pay-to-be-spied-on contract for e-commerce.’

Why did the following paragraph in Professor Zuboff’s NYT essay in late January — in the context of its headline and theme — set alarm bells jangling?

You Are Now Remotely Controlled

Surveillance capitalists control the science and the scientists, the secrets and the truth.

Only repeated crises have taught us that these platforms are not bulletin boards but hyper-velocity global bloodstreams into which anyone may introduce a dangerous virus without a vaccine. This is how Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, could legally refuse to remove a faked video of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and later double down on this decision, announcing that political advertising would not be subject to fact-checking. 

That is an intensely emotive jambalaya, and not a logical argument. It is a fact that the platforms do indeed serve as ‘bulletin boards’ for useful, unobjectionable and frequently important messages from millions of users, every day. The article unreasonably conflates the ‘hate speech’ debate — about the platforms as carriers of social viruses — with the discussion of what needs to be done about regulating commercial surveillance and the theft of our personal data. Professor Zuboff somehow blurs the refusal of social media platforms such as Facebook to control what some individual users post there with not one but two unrelated questions — first, about whether paid political advertising on those sites should be curbed or forbidden; secondly, about what limits should be placed on information-gathering about platform users.

In her book she mashes all those together on the grounds that refusing to censor their users means that the social media platforms attract more users; can keep them on their sites for longer to gather more information about them; and, by growing their audiences in this way, earn more advertising dollars. 

While that is all undoubtedly true, it does not add up to an argument for treating the platforms like the owners of newspapers that are responsible for the work of their employees. Besides, there is something far more critical at stake, here.

Professor Zuboff mostly ignores or pays only cursory attention to the indispensable role that the platforms have assumed for most of us as cyberspace equivalents of town halls, libraries, coffee houses, debating clubs, pubs and soapboxes, and of pamphleteering and other printed means of disseminating facts and opinions — among other institutions and media. 

In an interview with the editor in chief in the latest issue of Wired, the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, endorses the idea of access to the internet as a basic human right. He explains:

People are saying all the voices must be heard. The idea of a very small group of people can decide for everything is now being put into question very seriously. … [I]n each country, the trigger is different. In some cases it’s an economic-driven occasion, in others it’s pressure on the political system, in others corruption, and people react. But I see more and more people wanting to assume responsibility, wanting their voices to be heard. And that is the best guarantee we have that political systems will not be corrupted.

Here, pG — which has so far been among Facebook’s most relentless critics, most recently, for its new practice of selectively handing out gigantic pots of cash to famous newspapers and magazines — must concede that Mark Zuckerberg is right to say that ‘People of varied political beliefs are trying to define expansive speech as dangerous because it could bring results they don’t accept,’ and that he believes that ‘this is more dangerous to democracy in the long term than almost any speech.’ His idea of trying out ‘a court-style board to rule on site content’ — staffed not by Facebook managers but independent outsiders — is also a good one, as long as the arbiters are genuinely independent, and expensive professional lawyers from the rickety U.S. legal system do not get involved in the sorting out of complaints.

Also in this month’s issue of Wired, Gideon Lewis-Kraus argues in an excellent meditation on the Big Tech controversy that … 

The opportunity to vent on social media, and occasionally to join an outraged online mob, might relieve us of our latent desire to hurt people in real life. It’s easy to dismiss a lot of very online rhetoric that equates social media disagreement with violence, but […] the conflation might reflect an accurate perception of the symbolic stakes: On this view, our tendency to experience online hostility as “real” violence is an evolutionary step to be cheered.

[…] 

To worry about whether a particular statement is true or not, as public fact-checkers and media-literacy projects do, is to miss the point. It makes about as much sense as asking whether somebody’s tattoo is true.

By all means let’s urgently make rules or draft laws for curtailing user surveillance and data-gathering by Big Tech. Devious impersonations such as sophisticated, digitally-manipulated misrepresentations of people — such as the fake Nancy Pelosi video mentioned by Professor Zuboff — should be prosecuted like any other form of identity theft. If anything is making people angry enough to ensure all that, it is The Age of Surveillance — succeeding where earlier books drawing attention to the same or similar problems have had no remotely comparable impact.

Among them is one published in 1997 by the Harvard Business School Press — Real Time: Preparing for the Age of the Never-Satisfied Customer.** In it, the Silicon Valley marketing innovator and investor Regis McKenna shows Professor Zuboff to be mistaken in one of her central assertions, which is that surveillance capitalism was ‘pioneered and elaborated through trial and error’ by Google in 2001.

While search engine technology allowed for a massive refinement of commercial surveillance and made it incommensurably insidious when misused, at least one other company actually hacked out the path to it. Real Time drew attention to ‘an excellent illustration of the shades of interactivity to come.’  This was in a six-month interlude in 1996, in which PepsiCo offered teenage and Generation X consumers of Mountain Dew fizzy drinks radically discounted electronic beepers to use with no communication charges. 

They were also given access to a toll-free telephone hookup over which they could listen to interviews with sports heroes — and the chance to get discounts from twenty other companies keen to sell this demographic group things ranging from tortilla chips to snowboards. PepsiCo paged the 50,000 participants in its scheme once a week to ask them questions in a ‘real-time dialogue with them,’ and anticipated eventually creating ‘an enormous, nonstop, electronic focus group at a remarkably low cost.’ Unfortunately, as Real Time noted, this soon led to ‘a firestorm of unanticipated criticism’ of the soft drink producer,’ for exploitation:

The company had assumed that this, of all communications technologies, would be irresistible to parents — helping two-career couples worried about their children’s whereabouts to keep in touch with them. Instead, the promotion was denounced as disturbingly manipulative by parents and children’s advocates — like the Center for Media Advocacy in Washington, D.C., a watchdog group, and Action for Children’s Television.

The New York Times report on the project said that ‘soliciting information from youths through the Internet and pagers also raises privacy questions.’

A quarter-century later we know that the anxiety was prescient — but now we also have free speech protection to worry about, separately.

( A later post on the same topic is here

** Real Time was a short-order project, a book researched, written and edited on a brutal schedule, in less than six months, in 1996 — with the assistance of pG’s writer, who thanks @nikluac for the tweet that led to this excursion into the past.

How a well-meaning Angela Merkel choosing the wrong tactic for protecting Europe from Big (U.S.) Tech’s incursions could make Orwell’s dystopia our reality

 

What is the one essential step required for George Orwell’s nightmare of totalitarian centralisation — Nineteen Eighty-Four — to become even more plausible than it is already, in freedom-loving western countries? 

That is, the step that would determine exactly how we get to One power to rule them all: a single, giant database or store of personal information about us, created by merging all the facts the government has with all the data that the social media and other technology giants have been gathering — to give a Big Brother-for-real absolute control? 

A scoop by The Financial Times last week — Google lists no other source, and FT.com was offering free access to the piece when pG last checked — suggested, for an answer, a superficially innocent and at first glance, desirable proposal by a European leader. Proceeding with that proposal would create a  route to deadly centralisation far easier and more straightforward than the possibility sketched in the last pG entry: 

Who in the traditional Establishment could we count on to oppose a deadly merging of government and commerce — by, say, a government trying to invoke emergency powers to requisition Big Tech’s vast and ever-expanding stores of data about us? Invoke those powers illegitimately?

In its report titled ‘Angela Merkel urges EU to seize control of data from US tech titans,’ The Financial Times said:

Angela Merkel has urged Europe to seize control of its data from Silicon Valley tech giants, in an intervention that highlights the EU’s growing willingness to challenge the US dominance of the digital economy.

The German chancellor said the EU should claim “digital sovereignty” by developing its own platform to manage data and reduce its reliance on the US-based cloud services run by Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

[…]

Ms Merkel was speaking just two weeks after Berlin unveiled plans for a European cloud computing initiative, dubbed Gaia-X, which it has described as a “competitive, safe and trustworthy data infrastructure for Europe”.

Peter Altmaier, economy minister, said the data of companies such as Volkswagen, and that of the German interior ministry and social security system, were increasingly stored on the servers of Microsoft and Amazon. “And in this we are losing part of our sovereignty,” he added.

He said 40 companies had signed up for Gaia-X, including Deutsche Telekom, SAP and Bosch, and the new platform would be ready by the end of the year. “We want to be able to offer companies . . . ministries and governments the chance to store their data in Europe, according to transparent, clearly recognisable standards.” 

[ continues here … ]

Yes, her remarks were about corporations, not private citizens, but the identical argument — digital sovereignty — could be used by the EU or some other government to justify commandeering the intimate personal facts that the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter are hoovering up about us all day long. With or without our permission, and whether or not we are paying for their services.

Why didn’t it occur to Frau Merkel (or her policy advisors) to throw all her weight behind decentralising the net as the solution — proposed by none other than the inventor of the World Wide Web, (Sir) Tim Berners-Lee — ? 

For an outline of his ideas on that subject, scroll down this post:

‘Mystery solved? Famous newspapers that ignored the Social Media Strike of 2019 have agreed to accept regular payments of millions of dollars from Facebook’

Mystery solved? Famous newspapers that ignored the Social Media Strike of 2019 have agreed to accept regular payments of millions of dollars from Facebook

 

peony, darkening of the light -- postgutenberg@gmail.com

The picture is darkening for those like the world wide web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, who ‘remain committed to making sure the web is a free, open, creative space — for everyone.’

[ Significant sections of this post-Gutenberg.com entry were edited for clarity on 2 November 2019 ]

The question of why so many famous newspapers railing against Big Tech failed to alert their readers to the Social Media Strike of 2019 — or report on it — has been answered partially, since the last post on this site.  That answer could hardly be more depressing for anyone to whom free speech and objective, independent, media matter.  Worse, it brings us closer to a real life equivalent of a dictator or other centralised authoritarian power running amok — that is, to the fictional world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

On Friday 25 October, Facebook announced that it will be paying millions of dollars to selected U.S. newspapers — the likes of The New York Times and Washington Post among them — for posting their stories (content) on its site.

According to an early August report in The Guardian that came up in search results for the query, ‘Facebook paying newspapers’ — following the accidental discovery of this news on the Wired site  — the company started hawking its offer of million-dollar-plus subsidies experimentally, in April. Could publishing organisations trying to decide whether they should accept one have failed to cover the Social Media Strike set for  4-5 July for that reason?

It certainly looks like a strong possibility, even if different considerations were at work for each publication. The Guardian, for instance, might not have been approached by Facebook, even though it has a U.S. website. The explanation for its dissing of the strike could have been that the call to action was led by Larry Sanger, one of the Wikipedia’s two long-estranged co-founders. The other, Jimmy Wales, has been a member of the newspaper’s parent company, Guardian Media Group, since at least 2018.

Wired has already demonstrated that taking Facebook’s cash does not necessarily — or immediately — deprive a publication of the ability to balance its reporting about that platform. Its article on the subject quoted an activist working on behalf of traditional newspapers who described the Facebook move as ‘a “conveniently timed announcement that’s clearly meant to distract from Zuckerberg getting eviscerated on the Hill this week”’ — a reference to the founder-CEO’s grilling by members of the U.S. House of Representatives financial services committee in Washington DC.

Yet, because the magazine did not spurn Facebook, Wired’s overall characterisation of the corporation’s new sugar daddy role in the lives of newspapers must be interpreted as favourable — in keeping with one quotation in its report, about the cash infusions ‘having the potential to shift parts of the news industry from “pessimism to optimism”’. [ pG’s emphasis ]

Facebook is only giving some newspapers money, in a scheme it is still unfurling, effectively playing king-maker. Is it naïve to expect that in the future, the newspapers that have until now been exposing the social media colossus’s worst business practices — and demanding that it be made accountable to the public for those actions — will start competing to win favour from it? 

How can these papers possibly cover it objectively when they are vying for larger cash handouts from it? It is hard not to imagine past leaders of newspapers proud of a tradition of reporting ‘without fear or favour’ turning in their graves.

In the U.K. and U.S., newspaper campaigns against Facebook’s data-stealing and privacy violations, among other offences, have been vital prods for MPs and legislators now investigating the need for closer government oversight, if not regulation, of Big Tech. 

If traditional media’s interests become less and less distinguishable from the social media giant’s and they can no longer act as a check on its actions and powers, what happens next? Who in the traditional Establishment could we count on to oppose a deadly merging of government and commerce — by, say, a government trying to invoke emergency powers to requisition Big Tech’s vast and ever-expanding stores of data about us? Invoke those powers illegitimately? And how could that fail to turn some of George Orwell’s nightmare visions into everyday reality? 

The progressive centralisation of media financing and power, and of data collection about ordinary citizens, raises the risk of an authoritarian central force seizing control. It could make that a cakewalk. (The newly created Big Brother would not necessarily be domestic: it could easily be a hostile foreign government.)

Newspapers that have consented to taking Facebook’s coin should reverse their decision immediately — but are unlikely to do anything of the kind. By far the most thoughtful and intelligent reaction to the novel scheme came from a writer or writers on the Techdirt website in Redwood City, in the northern half of Silicon Valley. Crisply written, and with a critical historical perspective missing from every other commentary on that subject, Techdirt‘s take on the topic is essential reading. Its conclusion is in perfect harmony with pG’s (see ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders ( updated )’:

If we want to “fix” journalism, it will require a new path forward (i.e., innovative business models).

Accepting Facebook’s Trojan horse handouts would not be the right sort of innovation or improvement on the defective business model most widely used today. Here is (Sir) Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the world wide web, lamenting the effects of that model on his brainchild’s evolution, after its open and liberating early years:

The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.

These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors.

[…]

Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it’s too late to change the way platforms operate. On both points, we need to be a little more creative.

A year ago, Facebook acquired a key to opening doors to high government offices everywhere when it hired Nick (Sir Nicholas) Clegg — Britain’s deputy prime minister from 2010-15 —  to serve as its head of global policy and communications. As the company’s capacious pockets are used to favour some venerable, still dominant old media powers not just with gifts of cash but — presumably — special treatment on its platform, old and new media seem well on their way to creating an even more unassailable Establishment.  This could make a U-turn towards decentralising power ever more difficult and probably, impossible. 

peony , darkening of the light, square -- postgutenberg@gmail.com