The Real Issue With Data and The Need to Redefine Progress

By Ana Rubiero Peris

(Collage by Ana Rubiero Peris)

“The computer age has made it to where no one really knows exactly what is going on” -Donald Trump 

We are thrown into 24-hour media cycles from across 6 continents, endless twitter feeds and the constant bombarding of multiple narratives that compete for our attention and for the possession of an ultimate truth. In the midst of it all, we are left with confusion and a need for processing, which often leaves us in a state of paralysis. But this contradicts the imperative to be constantly updated, knowledgeable, opinionated and successfully perform this digitally in order to benefit from social (media) capital.

Thanks to the infamous Cambridge Analytica Scandal and Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, it became widely known that digital spaces have become colonised by corporate and state interests. Far behind are the techno-utopian dreams of the 90s, that envisioned the flourishing of civilization in a space so abstract that it was outside the logic and limitations of our everyday lives; and most importantly, free from economic imperatives. What has emerged in its place is a digital infrastructure so vast and complex that its advantages and problems are hardly discernible from each other, let alone criticized.

(Art by John Sachs)

The foundational myth of today’s digital industry is very simple, they provide us with a free service and we consume advertisements in exchange, a ‘fair’ exchange. Or, in the case of state surveillance, this is supposedly done in the name of ‘national security’, as conveyed by the US patriot act. Both assumptions are false, and many moral and legal lines have been crossed under these premises. Every digital interaction that you have, even scrolling down through your feed, can potentially create value for these big tech corporations. This value has been turned into a speculative economy whereby personal data sets are aggregated into collections and sold for profit. This market is so vast that there are currently thousands of data brokers, an entire industry that profits from collecting and selling data, with an estimated annual revenue of 200 billion dollars. Data is a valuable asset which companies appropriate, speculate,  misuse, and profit from.

1. SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM 

Soshana Zuboff, social psychologist and philosopher at Harvard University, famously outlines this point in her 2018 book titled Surveillance Capitalism, where she argues that surveillance capitalism is a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales. The main actors here are known as the big 5, namely Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. As she points out, the actual customers of this new economy are not the users but the companies that are in the market of trading with data. 

(Diagram from “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, Shoshana Zuboff)

Zuboff also collaborated in the Social Dilemma, the famous Netflix documentary that was released in the middle of the pandemic, when our only possible form of connection and escape from the world was done digitally. What followed was people complaining en masse (through social media of course) about the ‘Orwellian’ system that was behind the apps we loved and nurtured. Some people even deleted or disabled their accounts in an effort to «reject modernity and embrace tradition». But with the clarity of time, we now see that nothing has really changed, most people have reactivated their accounts, Facebook released a statement that doubled as a Netflix diss track and a textbook example of `ethics washing´. And even though people are more aware than ever, awareness has devolved into generalised impotence and apathy instead of political action. 

2. TRICKLE DOWN LIES

What if this is all a sham? What if it’s not even useful data? What if we are taking Big Tech’s word for it? Maybe we believed everything that tech companies told their investors what they where capable of doing with our data : trickle-down marketing, which unlike trickle-down economics, seems to have actually worked. Because what if it was actually better for facebook to let people believe that they were successful at a criminal scheme than for us to think it was a spectacular failure?

There is substantial evidence to believe that the ‘data race’ has been completely useless and wholly unsuccessful even at predicting human behavior. Uber, Google and Facebook failed miserably at turning data into a successful behavior-prediction algorithm. The foundations of this apparatus lie on faulty consumer data and models that fail up to 85% of the time, all of which are powered by a digital advertisement economy that is broken. Tim Whoang’s book Subprime Attention Crisis draws alarming parallels between the 2008 housing crisis and the current online advertising bubble. Big data (as it is currently conceived) has become the Titanic Orchestra, playing as they are sinking. But tech giants are not on the ship, having divested and diversified their investments, mainly towards healthcare and education.

Zuboff claims that surveillance capitalism deprives us of our free will through its hyper-complex system of persuasion, but not only is this system faulty at its most basic level (advertising), it also overlooks the fact that “the impact of dominance far exceeds the impact of manipulation”. The problem here is not so much that the mechanisms of the internet are able to control your actions, but rather that the scope of digital possibilities is increasingly narrowed and concentrated by a few actors. Fanatically seeing the internet as a thought-control machine, we are induced to forges that this is just a symptom of the wider structures we live under, which also shape our offline lives. Demystifying surveillance capitalism can allow us to see beyond it and discuss what an ideal internet looks like. This is where Zuboff (and the Social Dilemma’s) argument fails: while rightfully trying to alarm the public, it mystifies the issue and paints a picture so bleak that you are left disenfranchised and pushed to retreat into individual action. 

And if there is something to learn from BP’s marketing sham of individual carbon footprint, it is that the big problems that we currently face cannot be defined, let alone challenged along individual lines; and that more creative, collective action is required.

3. THE PROBLEM WITH THE RIGHT TO PRIVACY

 Governmental response thus far attests to the failure of tackling such multifaceted issues under individual paradigms. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a prime example of this; approved by the European Parliament in 2017, it is praised as a model of data regulation by expert committees and Silicon Valley CEOs alike. But when a piece of regulation is advocated for by the same people whose power this legislation intends to limit, some alarms should go off. The GDPR is a response to the arguments formulated in ‘Surveillance Capitalism’, that we need legislation to stop the intrusion of tech giants into our privacy. The GDPR gives individuals eight rights that apply to their data. Simply put, it gives individuals the right to be informed and to consent about the use of their data, as well as to retract or to ‘be forgotten’.  But even here the robustness of the GDPR to protect people from surveillance is put into question because ultimately, these rights can be overrun in the name of “national security” as per article 23 of the GDPR

The GDPR is insufficient and misguided. Because of its sole focus on privacy, the rights that the GDPR ensures are negative rights – those that guarantee a space of non interfering –and it sets the protection of individuals’ interests during data collection and processing as the solution to the problem. However, it fails to account for a positive conception of rights –the rights that ensure opportunities for development and growth– which are exactly the rights that are needed. Fewer people would have a problem with their data privacy if there was a system that ensured that their data would be transparently used for research that would then improve public services for all, from healthcare and medicine research to the improvement of government planning through cybernetics. 

And this is what the GDPR ultimately gets wrong, the possibilities of the digital require much more than protection of the individual. Because the immense possibilities that come with the digital age –most of which are tied to its interconnectedness and the fostering of a collective good by erasing individual borders– should be fostered and allowed to grow by creating a safe and healthy digital environment. Rather than constrained to fit into a liberal model that seems anachronistic when faced with the logics of the digital realm.

4. WHERE TO GO FROM HERE

Ultimately, the way in which these technologies are being used is not criminal just because of the attack on privacy and individual rights but because of how technology and vast resources are being wasted. 

The data that is gathered about us was created with specific goals in mind (commercial, personalised advertising, profiling, etc), which means that the data that we have is not the one we can use to solve the big problems we are facing. This ‘data-race’ amongst big tech giants and their investors is creating a vacuum of resources, time and technology, directing them towards  mundane and profit-driven causes instead of reorienting technology to better serve humanity. If the best computer scientists of our time are going en masse to Google or Facebook because these are the companies with infinitely better technology and resources than any other place in the world, what does this say about the direction that technological progress is directed towards?

Philosopher and design theorist Benjamin Bratton calls for a new ‘Copernican Turn’ in our approach to digital technologies in order to realise that the potential of our technologies lie not just in their ability to map the world (i.e., google) but in their ability to change it (i.e., climate models). “The reorganization of the Earth not only as it `truly is,’ but as it may be”. Just as science was able to take on a huge leap when we realised that the Earth –as well as ourselves– was not the centre of our solar system, and climate change only became ‘real’ when we understood the role of humans in shaping the ecosphere, perspectives towards technology should undergo a similar transformation and realise its full scope. The third copernican turn should reimagine the interaction between organisms, machines and ecologies. In order to do this, we need to forego the obsession with pervasive individual monitoring and surveying for useless corporate and state interests. Most importantly we need to rethink not just the goals that must drive this technology forward (improving quality of life, automating work, exponentially improving our knowledge of the world, the list goes on…), but also the long-term implications of this technology, and its –societal economic and material– sustainability. In other words the world must not only be interpreted, it must be transformed. Yes to surveillance, but of carbon emissions.

(Project Cybersyn, A Chilean Project)

In the past we thought that technological progress, robotization and automation would be liberating; now we fear those technologies because they might replace us. Keynes predicted in his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren that thanks to technological progress and automation, a post-scarcity society was in sight, putting an end to “the economic problem”. That same decade saw Johan Huzinga set out to kill the Homo Economicus in order to save the Homo Sapiens, an ode to the playful and creative human being, the Homo Ludens. Now 80 years later anthropologist David Graeber observed that the evolution of capitalism has simply created ‘bullshit jobs’ to maintain employment in order to sustain the levels of consumerism. We are still made to be a Homo Economicus, only now we have embodied Sisyphus, eternally condemned to pushing a rock in order to maintain the economic conditions . “  It is in this contradiction between two possible outcomes that we are currently at; and it can either resolve in rebranded bullshit jobs and ‘techno-feudalism’, or in profound changes that will ensure post-scarcity and exponentially improve the global standard of living.

To look at technology critically is to see what kind of future it is building. If that future is not green, just, egalitarian and common, we can and must do better. Another progress is possible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s