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

 

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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.

** 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.