Posts Tagged ‘Surveillance Capitalism’

The freedom of speech dilemma

January 29, 2021

The new documentary movie, “The Social Dilemma,” is about social media companies whose business plan is addiction.   We discussed it in the drop-in discussion group of First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., last Tuesday.

This is a real problem I’ve written about myself, and little of what was presented is new to me.

The Internet itself has inherent addictive aspects, to begin with.  Social media companies use artificial intelligence and behavioral psychology to make their offerings more addictive. 

They combine AI and psychological expertise with surveillance technology to target individuals who are susceptible to certain types of advertising and propaganda.

Since their aim is “engagement,” it is more profitable to generate fear and anger than contentment because the negative emotions have more impact.  For the same reason, it often is more profitable to steer people to sensational fake news than dull but accurate news.

All this is generally understood[Update 1/30/2021. Then again, the movie itself may be an example of what it complains of.]

So why are there so many calls for the social media companies to take on the role of Internet censors?  If Facebook and Google are the sources of the problem, what qualifies their employees to decide which news sites I should see and which I shouldn’t?

It is not as if they have given up on a business model in which profits are made by enabling propaganda by exploiting surveillance and addiction.

What the social media companies seem to be doing is cracking down on everybody—right, left or off the spectrum—who dissents from the official view.

Experts quoted in the film say that, because of the social media companies, there is no agreement on what is true and what isn’t, and they also say the very concept of objective truth is disappearing. 

But these are two very different things.  It is not only possible, but very common, to have agreement based on lies or false beliefs. 

There was an official consensus in 2002, supported by, among others, the New York Times, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. 

As a result of those lies, thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East lost their lives; millions became homeless refugees. 

Popular journalists who questioned the WMD lies, such as Phil Donahue, were canceled.  They have never been rehabilitated. 

Those who went along with the lies flourished.  They have paid no penalty, even in reputation.

The consequences of the WMD lie were many times greater than the Pizzagate conspiracy theory lie.  Spreading the Pizzagate story endangered innocent lives, I’m not trying to justify it, but, in fact, nobody died as a result.

More recently the so-called mainstream media spread baseless claims that Donald Trump is a secret agent of Vladimir Putin.  Trump is many bad things, but that charge was absurd.  The media also spread baseless claims to smear Julian Assange.

Maybe you doubt the Russiagate and Assange claims were fake news.  Fair enough.  But how can you be sure if you don’t have access to the arguments on the other side?

What most critics of the social media companies, including the producers of the movie, don’t get is that there is one thing worse than producing competing versions of reality that nobody can agree on.

The worse thing is the social media companies working hand-in-hand with government to produce a common propaganda version of reality based on official lies.  This is what is going on right now.

If liberals or progressives think a government and corporate crackdown on “fake news” is going to be limited to actual white supremacists or neo-Nazis, they are very naive.

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The new age of surveillance capitalism

May 13, 2019

There are two categories of Americans who are under constant surveillance.  One consists of paroled convicts and criminal defendants on bail who are under court order to wear electronic ankle bracelets.  The other consists of everybody.

That is what I took away from reading THE AGE OF SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff, which came out earlier this year.

It’s about the prevalence of the new business of collecting information about people, usually without their knowledge, and using that information to shape their behavior.

If you have a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, it’s making floor plans of your house.  If you have an OnStar GPS system in your car, it’s taking notes on your driving habits.  If you have a Next thermostat, it’s recording your energy use patterns.  If your children play with Genesis toys, they’re recording your children’s behavior.

Technical experts in Canada, France and the Netherlands found that the Google Street View trucks were not only taking photographs, but using Wi-Fi to collect telephone numbers, credit information, passwords, e-mails, records of on-line dating, pornography, browsing behavior, medical information and video and audio files.

All this information has economic value.  In fact, according to Zuboff, it often has more value to the provider than the fee for the service itself.  What she calls “market capitalism,” where a business makes money by selling a product or a service, is being replaced by what she calls “surveillance capitalism,” where a business makes money by collecting, processing and using data to shape human behavior.

It’s been said that people who use social media and other Internet services, especially free ones, are the product, not the customer.  Zuboff said that, in fact, the users are not even the product; they are the raw material.   The product is the model of their behavior  derived from the data they provide.

Click to enlarge.

The frontier of surveillance capitalism is gathering up seemingly meaningless information—what is called “data exhaust” or “digital breadcrumbs”—and using machine intelligence to correlate this information with human emotion and behavior.

Machine intelligences are not sentient, they have no understanding of the human mind.  They don’t need to. All they need to be able to do is look for correlations, and test them.  They are using the behavioristic psychology developed by B.F. Skinner.  He taught that it isn’t necessary to understand how individual people think and feel.  All that is necessary is to know what stimulus evokes what response.

How often you click on a “like” button on Facebook, how hard you step on the gas when accelerating your car, your willingness to answer questions about your politics and religion—all these things can be used to create a model of your behavior, which then can be tested.

Who would want such a model?  Advertisers,  Insurance companies.  Employers.  Lenders.  Credit rating companies.  Landlords.  And, of course, politicians.

Jaron Lanier wrote about some of these issues in Ten Reasons for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,  His explanations were more brief, more readable and more clear than Zuboff’s 525-page tome (plus 124 pages of end notes).

But Lanier thought that the problem is limited to two companies, Google and Facebook, and could be easily fixed by changing their business models from advertising to fee-for-service.  If you read Zuboff’s book, you will understand that Google, Facebook and their imitators can no more give up collecting, processing and selling personal information than Starbucks can give up brewing strong coffee.  It is is not an aberration.  It is the core of their business model.

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