Neuroscience says that the power of faces is unique and crucial: should Facebook be allowed to effectively own it, with or without regulation?

Audrey Hepburn, Jiddu Krishnamurti, younger and older postgutenberg@gmail.com.jpg

Two striking 20th-century faces: Audrey Hepburn at 24, top L, and at 60, bottom R; Jiddu Krishnamurti at 15, top R, and at 86, bottom L

Law-making ¯politicians in Facebook’s home country are wrangling with Silicon Valley over whether regulations from Washington slated for drafting this year, putting Big Tech under some degree of pan-U.S. leash control — for the first time ever — should exert a tighter or looser grip on these companies.

That is beside the point. Especially in the case of Facebook, it is impossible that regulation could — remotely — address the actual need, which is to curtail severely the shaping by mere business executives of the relationship between people and the computer technology with which human lives are ever more subtly enmeshed.

What needs protection from the naked, exclusive pursuit of profit is the co-evolutionary future of men and machines. That this has so far been left to commerce defies belief.

Facebook began as an American college student’s invention of a new form of amusement — organising on a digital platform a sort of beauty or sex-appeal contest, not as a staged event but a long-playing rating game. Through Mark Zuckerberg’s entrepreneurial shrewdness — and a lot of lucky stumbling-upon — a businessman created a corporation made unprecedentedly powerful by exploiting an absolutely basic biological element in human attachment to other human beings. 

This, according to science, is the power of faces.

‘We have modules for learning to interpret facial expressions — parts of our brain learn that and nothing else.’ So we were told in 1993 in The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, a book in which the science writer Matt Ridley theorised about the links between our reproductive instincts and the evolution of our species. ‘It is possible that facial features are a clue to genetic or nurtured quality, or to character and personality,’ he wrote. One of the scientists he quoted described the face as ‘the most information-dense part of the body,’ — and through research in the intervening quarter-century, the evidence justifying that remark has only multiplied.

Should any traditional capitalist enterprise own that power? Even one whose ethics could be above reproach — unlike Facebook’s? From the perspective of our species, it is elemental power equivalent to effective ownership of the dominion of air, or water, fire or earth.

Surely this — above all else — is what needs to be impressed on legislators and policy advisers in every government weighing Big Tech’s role in society? Not as just an elegant philosophical perspective, but at the crux of the matter? 

The Age of Insight (2012), by the Austrian-American neuroscientist and Nobelist Eric Kandel, should be required reading for everyone involved in deciding what do about Facebook’s annexation of face-power. Extracts:

The brain mechanisms underlying face recognition emerge early in infancy. From birth onward, infants are much more likely to look at faces than at other objects. In addition, infants have a predilection for imitating facial expressions, a finding that is consistent with the central role that face perception plays in social interaction.

[…]

Instead of trying to process a face from a pattern of lines, as it does other visual images, the brain uses a template matching approach. It reconstructs the face from a more abstract, higher-order figural primitive: an oval containing two dots (for eyes, a vertical line between those dots (for the nose), and a horizontal line below them (for the mouth). Thus, perception of a face requires less deconstruction and reconstruction of an image than perception of other objects does.

[…]

Moreover, the brain is specialized to deal with faces. Unlike other complex forms, faces are easily recognizable only when they are right side up.

[…]

Faces are by far the most important category of object recognition … We approach people as friends or avoid them as foes by recognizing them, and we infer their emotional state from their facial expression.

The real question that legislators have to tackle has been raised repeatedly on this site: isn’t it time for Facebook to be owned by its users? (See: ‘The media establishment has begun to see sense in a user-owned Facebook …‘.)

The alternative of public control by turning technology giants into public utilities would be an invitation to governments to replace unregulated Big Tech in the Big Brother role into which Silicon Valley has been growing — alarming many of us, rightly, if the quality and sources of answers to the search engine query, ‘Is Big Tech Big Brother?’ are any guide.

O happy day! The ‘free’ surveillance/advertising-centred/data-cow business model has been superseded by the pay-to-be-spied-on contract for e-commerce

+++ dog + blonde postgutenberg@gmail.com

A watchful pair: he was too intent on his task to move a single canine muscle **

The tale of Big Brother at A Certain Newspaper (ACN.com), the last entry on this site,  omitted a crucial fact because it deserves its own post.

It is this: access to the visitor-sleuthing, visitor-interrogating ACN site is not free, but requires a subscription. Reader, if you haven’t noticed, this should tell you that things have gone from bad to dire — well beyond the normalisation of the surveillance business model’s (SBM) unwritten contract, in which the actual cost of ‘free’ admission and use of a site’s services is the loss of our privacy.

Bowing to the SBM meant accepting that when we pay no cash to use  Facebook — and innumerable other web services, including search engines — these companies can make records of our every click and cursor twitch. In many cases they do worse, following us wherever we go on the net, even after we have signed out of their domains. We have effectively told them, do come in and help yourselves to anything you’d like to know about us — or, as post-Gutenberg has observed before: by all means, please milk us like dumb data cows.

In the SBM’s successor, the pay-to-be-spied-on model for e-commerce that we are now bowing to in an almost imperceptible transition, we are giving them money to exploit us. In our delight with the discount on sub-zero winter boots and free shipping that the online retailer offers us, we do not object to being hooked up to the automated data-milking machines that our cash helps to finance ***.

The media version of this shift entails a striking switch in the terms of trade that our ACN.com encounter dramatised. In the old days of print, a newspaper handed over pages filled with news and analysis in exchange for our coins — and those paper pages had countless secondary uses. The exchange between buyer and seller ended, there. Today, a newspaper can believe that the sum billed to a credit card entitles it to monitor and record exactly how the owner of that plastic rectangle reads its online pages — to facilitate ‘personalising content and ads,’ as the ACN.com site informs visitors, ‘and to analyse how our sites are being used’ — today, tomorrow, … whenever.

What we call data-milking is blandly referred to by digital commerce specialists as ‘data-gathering.’ One such expert, Josh Bernoffwrites about ‘the data equation’ — implying that there is a fair and just equivalence in Facebook users paying with undefined ‘data and attention’ to upload what they want to communicate or ‘share’ on the social media platform. But saying ‘equation’ is applying a misleading euphemism to what the average Facebook user grasps, since that user does not understand the SBM, or know that it is also the advertising business model. Users do not understand how they enrich social media giants by letting them hawk facts about their behaviour and demographic and psychological profiles to other companies that use the information to maximise their advertisements’ ability to seduce them into buying their products.

In a perceptive post on Medium.com, Bernoff suddenly swerves sharply from tip-toeing around the sensitivities of e-commerce giants to making the critical point that users ‘are happy to give up an infinite amount of data’ to social media platforms and predicts — sadly, without exaggeration — that most of them will not stop doing this until ‘Facebook starts taking naked pictures of everyone in the shower and posting them without permission.’

That was a point made in his ruminations in early October about whether the software that Tim Berners-Lee (TBL) has been developing to return control of their data to internet users will be usable and used by enough people to reverse the soaring trend of exploitation, manipulation and restriction. Bernoff concludes that this will not happen unless a rich, dominant company can adopt and deploy it to support TBL’s project.

He nominates Apple for the task.

We cannot imagine a better use for Apple’s cash mountains than destroying the surveillance business model. But surely putting Apple in charge of creating ‘new devices, new experiences, new apps, and new ways to entertain yourself and experience life without requiring you to give up all your data’ would be a move in the wrong direction — further centralising power, when TBL is trying to take the web back to the freeing open space it was originally?

Today’s Tim Cook-led Apple appears to have high ethical standards, but what guarantee is there that this company’s tremendous potential for doing good would not be misused if he were replaced by — say, someone like Mark Zuckerberg, whose actions seldom match the high humanitarian ideals he claims to believe in, and who chronically breaks promises about protecting and respecting the privacy of Facebook users?

What might be more compatible with TBL’s aims? Putting Apple’s cash and managerial resources behind social media platforms that their users jointly own. Apple could assist with and finance their design and launch. 

See: ‘The media establishment has begun to see sense in a user-owned Facebook …’ An extract:

[L]ast Wednesday, the New York Times presented, as if this were a brand new idea, the otherwise commendable suggestion by three scholars — Jeremy Heimans, Henry Timms and separately, Nathan Schneider in 2016: ‘[W]hat if a social network was truly run by its users?’ In a newly published book they have written together, Heimans and Timms note the unfairness of what we — like many others — have been pointing out for years: the injustice of ‘the creative output of billions of people’ being turned ‘into a giant, centralized enterprise, with most users sharing none of the economic value they create and getting no say in the platform’s governance.’

[ continues here … ]      

** like any other well-trained ceramic dog

*** Why are we permitting this? See John Logan’s reference, in his comment on the last post-Gutenberg post, to soma — the drug crucial to subjugating the masses in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which creates ‘a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds’. Imagining themselves as ‘celebrities’ on their Facebook pages, and riding waves of happiness from online shopping discounts that let them buy-buy-buy probably works a similar dark magic on real, live, people in our time.

Who is going to start a movement to stop the social media giants from milking us like witless data cows? (Why a keiretsu-cooperative could be a better idea)

indoor rainbow 2 SC postgutenberg@gmail.com copy

Indoor rainbow, through a crack in a glass pane

Will the conversation about forcing Big Tech — especially Facebook and Google — to pay us for stripping our lives of personal information they sell to advertisers lead to a revised business model for newspaper publishing?

We launched this site in 2011 with a proposal that newspaper and other media websites share with commenters (then referred to as ‘bloggers’) the economic value that they add with their comments — a scheme we have updated intermittently since we first outlined it in 2010 as ‘The Keiretsu-Cooperative: A Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing’.

In a paper released at the close of 2017, ** five scholars and computer experts at elite U.S. institutions are calling for social media users to unite to demand payment for the streams of data about us that have made Big Tech rich, and insist on our right to determine where that information goes and on what terms.

That is the essence of the boldest conclusion of those thinkers, collaborating over the fence from these places: the School of Engineering and the Department of Economics at Stanford; Columbia’s Department of Economics; Microsoft’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, and the Department of Economics and Law School at Yale.

Their justification for their call to action is technical, apparently aimed at mandarins (wonks) drafting economic policy, whom they hope to persuade that governments must shift ‘ownership rights in data to the users that generate them.’ (About time, we say.) They couch their arguments in basic economic theory — the theory of the firm — whose jargon and quasi-mathematical symbols obscure concepts that are easy to express in plain English. The overall impression is of rabbis presenting scriptural sanction that they felt obliged to seek in the Talmud to bolster a commonsensical moral argument: social media users must not accept being milked for our data without compensation or control.

How likely are we to see the birth of a movement with such a rallying cry? Not very, we suspect. For a start, hardly anyone seems to have heard of its ivory tower recommendation or the paper in which that was made. We only learnt of this document’s publication by chance, browsing on the site of The Financial Times [ ft.com ]. There, the final paragraph of John Thornhill’s helpful outline and commentary reminds us that the exploited have historically got the attention of their exploiters by going on strike — and suggests ‘digitally picketing social media groups under the slogan: “No posts without pay!”’

In his column’s comments section, some readers urged the FT to set an example. This one, for instance:

FTcom reader's comment on John Thornhill column

Organising movements and keeping up their momentum can be frustrating enough to drive surpassingly patient saints to distraction. Time and patience are scarce, and we have all grown used to instant gratification on the net. Anyone can sign up for an account on Twitter and broadcast a maiden tweet in minutes. A newcomer to WordPress could write and publish a first blog post in less than an hour. By contrast, although launchers of a movement to get us paid for our data could use, say, Change.org’s tools to collect signatures for petitions, that would only be the first stage of years of hard graft, gathering political support for drafting laws to regulate the ownership and sale of users’ data.

Media organisations implementing our own proposal for treating users fairly could get results faster and lead in setting standards for post-Gutenberg economic equity. These are the principal components of a ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ or economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims:

• A newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs.

• Reader-commenters visiting the site would not be paid for individual comments. Instead, they would buy subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes in the keiretsu publishers’ meta-site.

What would be the attractions of a scheme like this for today’s corporate media owners?

• It would reduce their dependence on advertising, which social media giants have been diverting into their coffers.

• Offering readers co-ownership of a site where they read and contribute comments would give the keiretsu publishers an edge over Facebook — which, as we have argued in this space repeatedly, should be a cooperative owned by its users.

• Drawing up rules for paying readers and commenters for each individual contribution would be a lot more complicated than allowing them to buy stakes in the meta-site. Making them co-owners would ensure their loyalty and give them an incentive to return to participate often — making the site more attractive to advertisers.

We have laid out other advantages and other dimensions of our proposal here: ‘Adapt-or-die advice for newspapers being squeezed out by Facebook: create symphysis with your reader-commenters!’

Despite our reservations about it, a movement to end social media’s data theft is guaranteed our whole-hearted support.

** ‘Should We Treat Data as Labor? Moving Beyond “Free,”’ Imanol Arrieta Ibarra, Leonard Goff, Diego Jiménez Hernández, Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl, American Economic Association Papers & Proceedings, Vol. 1, No. 1, (forthcoming).