Tag: Shoshana Zuboff (page 1 of 2)

Big Tech companies may change their names but they will not voluntarily change their economics

I based a good deal of Truth, Lies, and Digital Fluency, a talk I gave in NYC in December 2019, on the work of Shoshana Zuboff. Writing in The New York Times, she starts to get a bit more practical as to what we do about surveillance capitalism.

As Zuboff points out, Big Tech didn’t set out to cause the harms it has any more than fossil fuel companies set out to destroy the earth. The problem is that they are following economic incentives. They’ve found a metaphorical goldmine in hoovering up and selling personal data to advertisers.

Legislating for that core issue looks like it could be more fruitful in terms of long-term consequences. Other calls like “breaking up Big Tech” are the equivalent of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Democratic societies riven by economic inequality, climate crisis, social exclusion, racism, public health emergency, and weakened institutions have a long climb toward healing. We can’t fix all our problems at once, but we won’t fix any of them, ever, unless we reclaim the sanctity of information integrity and trustworthy communications. The abdication of our information and communication spaces to surveillance capitalism has become the meta-crisis of every republic, because it obstructs solutions to all other crises.

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We can’t rid ourselves of later-stage social harms unless we outlaw their foundational economic causes. This means we move beyond the current focus on downstream issues such as content moderation and policing illegal content. Such “remedies” only treat the symptoms without challenging the illegitimacy of the human data extraction that funds private control over society’s information spaces. Similarly, structural solutions like “breaking up” the tech giants may be valuable in some cases, but they will not affect the underlying economic operations of surveillance capitalism.

Instead, discussions about regulating big tech should focus on the bedrock of surveillance economics: the secret extraction of human data from realms of life once called “private.” Remedies that focus on regulating extraction are content neutral. They do not threaten freedom of expression. Instead, they liberate social discourse and information flows from the “artificial selection” of profit-maximizing commercial operations that favor information corruption over integrity. They restore the sanctity of social communications and individual expression.

No secret extraction means no illegitimate concentrations of knowledge about people. No concentrations of knowledge means no targeting algorithms. No targeting means that corporations can no longer control and curate information flows and social speech or shape human behavior to favor their interests. Regulating extraction would eliminate the surveillance dividend and with it the financial incentives for surveillance.

Source: You Are the Object of Facebook’s Secret Extraction Operation | The New York Times

Continuous eloquence is tedious

Corner of a high-rise building

🏭 Ukraine plans huge cryptocurrency mining data centers next to nuclear power plants — “Ukraine’s Energoatom followed up [the May 2020] deal with another partnership in October. The state enterprise announced an MoU with Dutch mining company Bitfury to operate multiple data centers near its four nuclear power plants, with a total mining consumption of 2GW.”

It’s already impossible to buy graphics cards, due to their GPUs being perfect for crypto mining. That fact doesn’t seem like it’s going to be resolved anytime soon.


😔 The unbearable banality of Jeff Bezos — “To put it in Freudian terms, we are talking about the triumph of the consumerist id over the ethical superego. Bezos is a kind of managerial Mephistopheles for our time, who will guarantee you a life of worldly customer ecstasy as long as you avert your eyes from the iniquities being carried out in your name.”

I’ve started buying less stuff from Amazon; even just removing the app from my phone has made them treat me as just another online shop. I also switched a few years ago from a Kindle to a ePub-based e-reader.


📱 The great unbundling — “Covid brought shock and a lot of broken habits to tech, but mostly, it accelerates everything that was already changing. 20 trillion dollars of retail, brands, TV and advertising is being overturned, and software is remaking everything from cars to pharma. Meanwhile, China has more smartphone users than Europe and the USA combined, and India is close behind – technology and innovation will be much more widely spread. For that and lots of other reasons, tech is becoming a regulated industry, but if we step over the slogans, what does that actually mean? Tech is entering its second 50 years.”

This is a really interesting presentation (and slide deck). It’s been interesting watching Evans build this iteratively over the last few weeks, as he’s been sharing his progress on Twitter.


🗯️ The Coup We Are Not Talking About — “In an information civilization, societies are defined by questions of knowledge — how it is distributed, the authority that governs its distribution and the power that protects that authority. Who knows? Who decides who knows? Who decides who decides who knows? Surveillance capitalists now hold the answers to each question, though we never elected them to govern. This is the essence of the epistemic coup. They claim the authority to decide who knows by asserting ownership rights over our personal information and defend that authority with the power to control critical information systems and infrastructures.”

Zuboff is an interesting character, and her book on surveillance capitalism is a classic. This might article be a little overblown, but it’s still an important subject for discussion.


☀️ Who Built the Egyptian Pyramids? Not Slaves — “So why do so many people think the Egyptian pyramids were built by slaves? The Greek historian Herodotus seems to have been the first to suggest that was the case. Herodotus has sometimes been called the “father of history.” Other times he’s been dubbed the “father of lies.” He claimed to have toured Egypt and wrote that the pyramids were built by slaves. But Herodotus actually lived thousands of years after the fact.”

It’s always good to challenge our assumptions, and, perhaps more importantly, analyse why we came to hold them in the first place.


Quotation-as-title by Blaise Pascal. Image by Victor Forgacs.

Friday featherings

Behold! The usual link round-up of interesting things I’ve read in the last week.

Feel free to let me know if anything particularly resonated with you via the comments section below…


Part I – What is a Weird Internet Career?

Weird Internet Careers are the kinds of jobs that are impossible to explain to your parents, people who somehow make a living from the internet, generally involving a changing mix of revenue streams. Weird Internet Career is a term I made up (it had no google results in quotes before I started using it), but once you start noticing them, you’ll see them everywhere. 

Gretchen McCulloch (All Things Linguistic)

I love this phrase, which I came across via Dan Hon’s newsletter. This is the first in a whole series of posts, which I am yet to explore in its entirety. My aim in life is now to make my career progressively more (internet) weird.


Nearly half of Americans didn’t go outside to recreate in 2018. That has the outdoor industry worried.

While the Outdoor Foundation’s 2019 Outdoor Participation Report showed that while a bit more than half of Americans went outside to play at least once in 2018, nearly half did not go outside for recreation at all. Americans went on 1 billion fewer outdoor outings in 2018 than they did in 2008. The number of adolescents ages 6 to 12 who recreate outdoors has fallen four years in a row, dropping more than 3% since 2007 

The number of outings for kids has fallen 15% since 2012. The number of moderate outdoor recreation participants declined, and only 18% of Americans played outside at least once a week. 

Jason Blevins (The Colorado Sun)

One of Bruce Willis’ lesser-known films is Surrogates (2009). It’s a short, pretty average film with a really interesting central premise: most people stay at home and send their surrogates out into the world. Over a decade after the film was released, a combination of things (including virulent viruses, screen-focused leisure time, and safety fears) seem to suggest it might be a predictor of our medium-term future.


I’ll Never Go Back to Life Before GDPR

It’s also telling when you think about what lengths companies have had to go through to make the EU versions of their sites different. Complying with GDPR has not been cheap. Any online business could choose to follow GDPR by default across all regions and for all visitors. It would certainly simplify things. They don’t, though. The amount of money in data collection is too big.

Jill Duffy (OneZero)

This is a strangely-titled article, but a decent explainer on what the web looks and feels like to those outside the EU. The author is spot-on when she talks about how GDPR and the recent California Privacy Law could be applied everywhere, but they’re not. Because surveillance capitalism.


You Are Now Remotely Controlled

The belief that privacy is private has left us careening toward a future that we did not choose, because it failed to reckon with the profound distinction between a society that insists upon sovereign individual rights and one that lives by the social relations of the one-way mirror. The lesson is that privacy is public — it is a collective good that is logically and morally inseparable from the values of human autonomy and self-determination upon which privacy depends and without which a democratic society is unimaginable.

Shoshana Zuboff (The New York Times)

I fear that the length of Zuboff’s (excellent) book on surveillance capitalism, her use of terms in this article such as ‘epistemic inequality, and the subtlety of her arguments, may mean that she’s preaching to the choir here.


How to Raise Media-Savvy Kids in the Digital Age

The next time you snap a photo together at the park or a restaurant, try asking your child if it’s all right that you post it to social media. Use the opportunity to talk about who can see that photo and show them your privacy settings. Or if a news story about the algorithms on YouTube comes on television, ask them if they’ve ever been directed to a video they didn’t want to see.

Meghan Herbst (WIRED)

There’s some useful advice in this WIRED article, especially that given by my friend Ian O’Byrne. The difficulty I’ve found is when one of your kids becomes a teenager and companies like Google contact them directly telling them they can have full control of their accounts, should they wish…


Control-F and Building Resilient Information Networks

One reason the best lack conviction, though, is time. They don’t have the time to get to the level of conviction they need, and it’s a knotty problem, because that level of care is precisely what makes their participation in the network beneficial. (In fact, when I ask people who have unintentionally spread misinformation why they did so, the most common answer I hear is that they were either pressed for time, or had a scarcity of attention to give to that moment)

But what if — and hear me out here — what if there was a way for people to quickly check whether linked articles actually supported the points they claimed to? Actually quoted things correctly? Actually provided the context of the original from which they quoted

And what if, by some miracle, that function was shipped with every laptop and tablet, and available in different versions for mobile devices?

This super-feature actually exists already, and it’s called control-f.

Roll the animated GIF!

Mike Caulfield (Hapgood)

I find it incredible, but absolutely believable, that only around 10% of internet users know how to use Ctrl-F to find something within a web page. On mobile, it’s just as easy, as there’s an option within most (all?) browsers to ‘search within page’. I like Mike’s work, as not only is it academic, it’s incredibly practical.


EdX launches for-credit credentials that stack into bachelor’s degrees

The MicroBachelors also mark a continued shift for EdX, which made its name as one of the first MOOC providers, to a wider variety of educational offerings 

In 2018, EdX announced several online master’s degrees with selective universities, including the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Texas at Austin.

Two years prior, it rolled out MicroMasters programs. Students can complete the series of graduate-level courses as a standalone credential or roll them into one of EdX’s master’s degrees.

That stackability was something EdX wanted to carry over into the MicroBachelors programs, Agarwal said. One key difference, however, is that the undergraduate programs will have an advising component, which the master’s programs do not. 

Natalie Schwartz (Education Dive)

This is largely a rewritten press release with a few extra links, but I found it interesting as it’s a concrete example of a couple of things. First, the ongoing shift in Higher Education towards students-as-customers. Second, the viability of microcredentials as a ‘stackable’ way to build a portfolio of skills.

Note that, as a graduate of degrees in the Humanities, I’m not saying this approach can be used for everything, but for those using Higher Education as a means to an end, this is exactly what’s required.


How much longer will we trust Google’s search results?

Today, I still trust Google to not allow business dealings to affect the rankings of its organic results, but how much does that matter if most people can’t visually tell the difference at first glance? And how much does that matter when certain sections of Google, like hotels and flights, do use paid inclusion? And how much does that matter when business dealings very likely do affect the outcome of what you get when you use the next generation of search, the Google Assistant?

Dieter Bohn (The Verge)

I’ve used DuckDuckGo as my go-to search engine for years now. It used to be that I’d have to switch to Google for around 10% of my searches. That’s now down to zero.


Coaching – Ethics

One of the toughest situations for a product manager is when they spot a brewing ethical issue, but they’re not sure how they should handle the situation.  Clearly this is going to be sensitive, and potentially emotional. Our best answer is to discover a solution that does not have these ethical concerns, but in some cases you won’t be able to, or may not have the time.

[…]

I rarely encourage people to leave their company, however, when it comes to those companies that are clearly ignoring the ethical implications of their work, I have and will continue to encourage people to leave.

Marty Cagan (SVPG)

As someone with a sensitive radar for these things, I’ve chosen to work with ethical people and for ethical organisations. As Cagan says in this post, if you’re working for a company that ignores the ethical implications of their work, then you should leave. End of story.


Image via webcomic.name