photo & text by nacrowe
ZUCKED: WAKING UP TO THE FACEBOOK CATASTROPHE (PENGUIN, 2020) is a warning against a dystopian future currently under development whereby various SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISTS like AMAZON, GOOGLE, MICROSOFT and yes, FACEBOOK, are monitoring your online and offline activities in real time and employing behavior modification at scale.
that last part is the real kicker.
the idea that your emotions and behavior can be modified as well as everyone else collectively on the site. to the common end user of a SOCIAL MEDIA platform (TWITTER, INSTAGRAM, FACEBOOK) there is an assumption that site is neutral, which is not true. seamless and invisible proprietary algorithms are constantly A/B-ing content to build a more complete psychological profile of the user that is in turn utilized to sell ads to advertisers. essentially the USER IS THE PRODUCT. persuasive technology such as AUTOPLAY/ENDLESS FEEDS, VARIABLE REWARDS, SOCIAL VALIDATION LOOPS and even outright PROPAGANDA is utilized to manipulate you to spend more time on the platform. as the author points out, these "web 2.0 startups focused their technology on the weakest elements of human psychology. They set out to create habits, evolved habits into addictions, and laid the ground work for giant fortunes."
the risk of such on the individual level is that PREFERENCE BUBBLES are established which consist of content and like-minded groups suggested by the algorithm and the reinforce biases and limit conflicting content, effectively creating a self-imposed STOCKHOLM SYNDROME. these PREFERENCE BUBBLES metastasize into FILTER BUBBLES which a dedicated user is often not even cognizant of, their skewed reality no turning into its own TRUMAN SHOW-esque alternative reality.
at scale on a societal level these FILTER BUBBLES are corrosive to national unity and democratic ideals. these networks incentivize extreme positions as such lead to further engagement and the real-world consequences include ethnic and political violence as well as DOMESTIC TERRORISM. it's a harsh dystopian reality we are being lead into with no real choice in the matter. as ZUCKED points out, only "the data consumers give up often accounts for 1 percent" of their total data. that means your search engine searches over time is nothing compare what the SURVEILLANCE CAPITALIST apparatus purchases off of third-parties and monitors utilizing various products throughout the web. it is fascinating and disturbing.
but let me back up for a sec.
the author, ROGER MCNAMEE, is a noted VENTURE CAPITALIST who was an advisor to MARK ZUCKERBERG in the years prior to FACEBOOK's IPO as he was being bid upon by then-competitors like YAHOO.
as much as ZUCKED focuses on the overreach of SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM and the climatic global, political, cultural and social destabilization that such has wrought, it is also equally focused on the ethos that emerged in post-2000 SILICON VALLEY that informed its trajectory.
in essence the tech community in the 2000s benefited from almost 30+ years of innovation that was tempered only by the limitations of the available technological infrastructure (bandwidth, processing power, storage, memory). in the 2000s these obstacles were effectively limitless. before these limitations meant that software developers and engineers had to be elegant, clever and efficient in how they wrote code. in the 2000s you had what is known as the "lean startup" model whereby you could present an ever evolving product and address issues as they emerge via user feedback. most emerging technologies utilized this cost effective model at the time. effectively it meant that little forethought was put into the possible future ramifications of new technologies and potential complications.
along with this new business model were the dual reinforcing ideologies of LIBERTARIANISM and NEOLIBERLAISM.
LIBERTARIANISM is the idea that there should be minimal intervention by the state in the market and private matters. this political stance promoted the idea of the good of the individual over that of the group and essentially absolved the adherent from responsibility from disruptions rooted in their greed. it also promoted a false notion of a MERITOCRACY, that leaders in the SILICON VALLEY were successful and in positions of power due to their own intellect and strategery and not (more likely) inherited wealth or connections. LIBERTARIANISM allowed many white men to promote a FALSE FEEDBACK LOOP that justified conformity and a homogenous workplace along ethnic and gender lines.
related to LIBERTARIANISM is the economic belief system known as NEOLIBERALISM (ubiquitous in both parties since REAGAN ADMINISTRATION), which advocates that markets should replace government as the rule setter of economic activity. you can probably see where this is heading. adherents to NEOLIBERALISM believe as a matter of principle that tech companies (with unmitigated economic, social, cultural, political and psychological influence and power never before seen in the history of mankind) are the sole rightful bearers of policing their own industry. for the most part (EUROPE being the exception) these SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISTS have been allowed to continue unabated from antitrust regulation.
it is a major problem.
luckily books such as this are adding to the chorus of criticism by researchers and academics that hopefully will counter commonly held LIBERTARIAN and NEOLIBERAL stances that were based on a past outdated, pre-digital model of the economy. DEREGULATION was a mistake and we are bearing the fruit of such now.
riveting book that really shook my understanding of myself and my relationship to technology and society. well worth your time to check out and read.
BOOK REVIEW | "WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION: HOW BIG DATA INCREASES INEQUALITY AND THREATENS DEMOCRACY" BY CATHY O'NEIL
photo & text by nacrowe
in my previous career as a teacher i witnessed the transition of evaluations from being mostly observational and face-to-face in nature by superiors to that of analytics based on student performance. at the time i found the process rather opaque and was left unaware in any open, transparent manner what the goals or metrics being utilized were and to what extent they impacted my score. i was not alone in this criticism and it has only gotten worse in years since.
WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION (BROADWAY BOOKS, 2016) by data scientist CATHY O'NEIL gets into the ethical pitfalls that are besieged on disadvantaged populations by algorithms that essentially maintain the hegemonic status quo of the power set. essentially algorithms have been utilized by corporations and government entities to make sense of impressive large amounts of information, known as BIG DATA, to make predictions about nearly every facet of our lives as individuals and effectively perpetuate inequality. these predictions are the bases of models that are used to define us in terms that effect how we are policed, how we are sentenced, at what rate we are sold insurance or business loans, how we are evaluated in school and so on. basically there are examples abound in this book about the pernicious feedback loops that essentially create self-perpetuating prophecies that are nearly impossible to escape.
its like the famous quote by science fiction writer ARTHUR C. CLARKE, who once noted that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." because of the immense complexity and inherent opacity of these processes within these calculations, we are left to assume that they are upheld to scientific rigor. this assumption is incorrect. these algorithms push forward the prejudices and assumptions of their creators. they are fallible and should be susceptible to outside audit, something that has yet to happen due to legal and political intransigence.
in totality it is a multi-tiered problem that is quite staggering in scale and beyond depressing. given the rapid rate in the innovation and effectiveness of surveillance technologies over the past 40 years, we are only in the infancy of such.
what O'NEIL is calling for is a rethinking of how we use these algorithms. essentially she is advocating for the moral use of them, which seems almost naive given the effectiveness of the monetary benefits to those that employ them. she cites examples by social workers in identifying and addressing specific populations that may be at increased risk needing their services. if used in a benign fashion in order to assist people then there may be hope, but i am skeptical.
the incentives in our society are just too great and our social fabric too weak that i fear this is already an arms race that will define our lives here on out.
this book was next level terrifying, yet written in a sober, methodical fashion that was by no means overwrought or alarmist. its a siren's call like PAUL REVERE in the night warning us all of an impending danger. my fear is we are all asleep, or worse, checking our social media feeds.