Data is the commodity of the 21st century. Privacy is in short supply. Your psychology is being hacked like never before. You’re exchanging your neurology for Internet services in the modern age. This is the new normal.
There’s no shortage of apocalyptic prognostications out there on the future of our technology-saturated culture. We needn’t dismiss them as mere doomsday fantasies because the truth is, the technological landscape is advancing at such an exponential rate that linear, modest assumptions will probably fall flat.
There’s plenty of grand future speculation but arguably less discussion of the concerning technological themes being witnessed currently. But it is this question that I’m very interested in.
In watching the moves of the big tech companies, one of the most prominent, across the board, is the sheer rigor with which they are all developing their artificial intelligence arms. There is a collective awareness of the prize that is at stake for grasping at AI ahead of the others.
Google, for example, is increasingly preoccupied with artificial intelligence and less interested in preserving the ‘free market’ aspect of the Internet. That a Google search is associated with infinite pages is a source of irritation for those helming the company. This is not their preferred legacy. Their ambition is not to have a human sift through a page or two of links to cobble together an informed viewpoint. Their perfectionist fantasy is actually that Google would direct you to a single result, a single webpage, a single answer. That’s their goal, and of course a myriad of questions sprout up around it, like, what if I want to research myself? What if I don’t trust that single answer? Doesn’t this all smell of censorship? Is this even ethical? Do I even have a choice?
Eric Schmidt, Google’s longtime CEO, admitted quite starkly in a surprisingly dated interview (2005) with Charlie Rose, the following:
When you use Google, do you get more than one answer? Of course you do. Well, that’s a bug. We have more bugs per second in the world. We should be able to give you the right answer just once. We should know what you meant. You should look for information. We should get it exactly right and we should give it to you in your language and we should never be wrong. That’s our challenge.
It’s a weirdly purist idea, especially for the time but it perfectly encapsulates the ethos of 2018 tech. Choices are apparently anathema, a technological disgrace. AI with its algorithmic precision is the shiny new objective, the holy grail.
It is certainly possible that the golden age of the Internet has come and gone, a faded section of history that we cannot touch again. The origins of the Internet, newly born creature that it was, were excitingly anarchic and decentralized. Increasingly, the infrastructure of freedom underpinning the Internet appears to crumble.
We — the people, so to speak, don’t define the Internet as much anymore. Instead, they — the big tech companies — do. They’ve wrested control and it goes without saying that there is no turning back. Things are moving in an inarguably paternalistic direction. Options, choices, a climate of freedom, will these things become relics of the past? An Internet pulled from our lazy fingers, and we won’t even know it? What have we unwisely taken for granted that might actually be taken from us, whisked from us because we are too slow and woefully visually impaired? Do you really think at this point we could put up a fight? Do you?
You know best was the siren call of the nascent Internet. We’re barely three decades in, and the tech giants, algorithmically drunk and clutching obscene amounts of power in their hands, cooly and unflinchingly say we know best.
The Currency of Data
“If you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product being sold.” This statement has been around for a while and while no doubt disturbing, is the model of choice for companies like Google and Facebook. Most of us are blissfully unaware of this transaction, however.
Different sections of history staked high economic valuations on different materials: Land was the commodity of the agrarian age, coal the commodity of the industrial age, and of the digital age, can you guess? It’s data. Amazingly, the majority of us have shrugged our shoulders over this painless exchange.
Google and its myriad of products are famously free. And yet they’re fabulously wealthy as a company. One might wonder where this affluence comes from. Mainly Google collects information and sells it to advertisers. To many, this sounds fairly benign or uninteresting, and they will gruffly disregard concerns as the anxious chattering of doomsayers, for example. But it’s not correct to say that it’s a harmless exchange because if your information, your data, all of our information and data in aggregate, is making companies like Google fabulously wealthy, this means that your information is very important indeed. It’s intrinsically worth something. Wresting your data and wielding it translates into their economic gain and if you’re unaware of this, are you not a sort of economic slave? At the very least, is this not the danger?
Essentially, as a society, we’ve extended an invitation to the big tech companies to spy on us. It happened via our own possibly oblivious willingness. The intensification over the years hardly registered because it was a slow crawl, a collective slide. The truth of the matter is this: Big tech companies know you better than you know yourself and they also understand how to manipulate that knowledge. There’s something vaguely Huxleyian about it all; Huxley always warned we’d voluntarily usher in things that would paste together a dystopian future.
Interestingly, the American population has always been adamantly opposed to the idea of government surveillance and this generally is the case irrespective of political affiliation. On some level the idea of it inflames our fear of domination. It’s about power — and we know that the government has the law on its side. Now, the big tech companies might not have the law on their side, but if we want to parse power, they’re not too far removed from the position the government occupies. And yet, the national consciousness seems to be sleeping in the face of this parallel violation of sorts. You might expect people to be a little more provoked, but presently, there’s something like a delay in clear-eyed awareness.
We’re dragging on behind, following blindly and passively. The tech CEOs from their perches in Silicon Valley, in their composed, cerebral tones, continue to vocalize their aims in ways that should give us pause, should make us sit up straight and rub the dust from our eyes, but we don’t. We don’t.
We lace ourselves into the technology around us. The Internet of Things grabs hold. Increasingly, the lines blur. We like our modern conveniences but do you know what’s convenient about them? We’re more accessible to those that grant us these things, and more economically valuable as a consequence. It is, in some ways, a power transfer. It is utterly convenient for them.
Hacking the Human Mind
And of course, the quest to exploit the vulnerabilities of human psychology never ends. This prospect is a very seductive one, and one that offers control as the reward, which necessarily promises economic gain. There has been in the past two years or so a mounting awareness of the dangerous quicksand that is social media. We talk of “detoxes” and “withdraws” from social media and the language used is telling. To detox necessarily implies that the inherent nature of it is toxic. And a social media “withdraw” alarmingly parallels that of a drug addict. Computer code is drawn up to coincide with dopamine rushes. If that isn’t programming the human mind, I don’t know what is.
In a way, and I’ll leave you with this, the big tech companies really are cornering the market that is humanity.