Economics, Politics, Technology

Who’s Afraid of Sergey Brin?

Not to single out Sergey, but he won't hear this anyway.

Shosanna Zuboff coined the term ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ in 2019 to refer to the mass commodification of hitherto private domains of our existence.  The debate on this issue turns on contrasting views of the power of human agency.

The ‘For’ side argues that submission to the audacious will of Surveillance Capitalism has become one of the Terms and Conditions of modern life, and threatens our personal freedom.  The ‘Against’ side adopts what might be termed a refusenik stance, positing that we can always choose to opt out of the services offered by the apparatus of Surveillance Capitalism.

The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in between.

Yes. Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

“In the future that the surveillance capitalism prepares for us, my will and yours threaten the flow of surveillance revenues. Its aim is not to destroy us but simply to author us and to profit from that authorship.” 

Shoshana Zuboff

If the only thing more dangerous than a person with nothing to lose, is a person with unlimited resources, then we need to talk about the 64 Billion Dollar Man, Sergey Brin.

In fairness, we need to talk about billionaires in general and the Silicon Six in particular, but as the baby-faced co-founder of Google, Brin is a convenient avatar for surveillance capitalism and all its attendant threats.

No other economic model since World War II has normalised parasitism, subverted free speech, fostered a culture of ‘cancelling’ fellow human beings, profited from fake news and fake views, undermined competition, privacy and democracy itself.

Big Tech’s mantra of Disruption has become manifest.  Its promises of greater connection have proven empty rhetoric.  Herded into into filter bubbles, packaged as target audiences and sold in real time to the highest bidders in virtual cattle markets known tellingly as ‘programmatic’ platforms, we have been politically, socially and economically polarised, cut off from each other and others’ points of view.  

But hey! At least we get the opportunity to buy the shoes we bought last week for 20% less. 

While many see targeted content as a convenience, others, like Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, see it as an artefact of something far more sinister: Inverted Totalitarianism, or IT for short. Unlike garden variety totalitarianism, its subtler, cuter cousin requires no charismatic leader (sorry, Sergey) or party allegiance. Like a parasite hijacking a cell’s machinery, IT simply, quietly corrupts society’s political processes for financial gain. 

And gain it has. With a combined market capitalisation of $4.5 Trillion, the wealth of the Silicon Six is nearly twice the GDP of the entire African continent and 1.2 times that of South America’s. Over the past decade, they have avoided over $100 Billion in taxes globally, and spent $428.8 million on lobbying—in the US alone.  And, despite tens of billions in antitrust fines over the past few years and privacy scandals, such as Cambridge Analytica, the SS are posting record profits. Case in point: In 2019 Facebook reported an 11% increase in users and a 25% increase in advertising revenue. 

Seen from above, you’d be forgiven for thinking the scandals in Big Tech’s wake are actually driving it forward. 

‘Create the problem, sell the solution’ smells like a strategy cooked up by a Chicago School MBA with an undergrad in critical theory, not bunch of comp sci kids. Yet this is the playbook Big Tech seems to favour: create black box algorithms that profit from human bias; launch a crusade against human bias; claim some algorithmic tweaks (along with the moral high ground), and watch the clicks and the cash roll in (then quickly offshore that shit). 

Brin and his ilk offer proof of the calculus of too much money and power. Not so much immoral as amoral, their technologies have changed the world faster than we can grasp the implications, or write the legislation. And like it or not, most of us are now trapped in their MMORPG, upon which our employability, if not our ability to earn, is at least partially dependent. 

Demonstrating a clear understanding of the Silicon Six as superpowers, Denmark, the US and the UK have appointed tech ambassadors. More should follow suit. Not to legitimise these companies as de facto nation-states, but to ensure Big Tech’s attendant threats are neutralised. We may need to rely on governments to enforce regulation and ensure transparency pertaining to Terms of Use (which should be much shorter than this blog), but it will be up to us to educate ourselves, our kids and our parents, about the trade-off between anonymity and access, and the true costs of convenience. 

I doubt that Sergey Brin is deliberately evil. However, redressing the imbalance of power between the people and Big Tech will require a deliberate effort. From all of us. 

I may not be afraid of Sergey Brin, the man. But frankly, our apparent apathy and the common belief that we have nothing to lose (and nothing to hide) scares the Search out of me.


No. Being Surveilled is Strictly ‘Opt-In’

“We have superseded our idea of our right to privacy by our right to know.”

Dave Eggers (Vox Magazine: Nov 18th 2019) 

If you’re not paying for a service online you are the product.

The rise to power of Surveillance Capitalism as a business model has been swift. It has led to an unprecedented commoditisation of the private sphere, both through silent acquiescence on the part of the public and through stealth and deviousness on the part of the firms engaged in this practice.

The Cambridge Analytica exposé both crystallised a latent suspicion and activated a subconscious unease on the part of users of the services offered by the behemoth companies behind major tech. platforms.

According to the Pew Research Centre, 44% of Facebook users aged 18-29 deleted the app in the immediate aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  However, Facebook’s total user base grew by 1.6% in the year to October 2019, and now stands at 2.45bn. users worldwide. 

The issue of online privacy would seem to be an open and shut case. The rise of Surveillance Capitalism is undoubtedly an egregious example of the erosion of personal rights by giant corporations for the purposes of their own enrichment. In ten short years, they have succeeded in altering social norms, so that the right to privacy, heretofore enshrined in law, has been diminished.

Specifically, Article 8 of the European Convention  on Human Rights states that: ‘‘Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.’

Surveillance Capitalism has managed to fundamentally alter our tacit knowledge around the hitherto inalienable right to privacy. Indeed, privacy is now seen less as a fundamental social and moral right and more as a currency, a bargaining chip to be played or surrendered in return for utility and services rendered.

‘What people want isn’t complete privacy …. they want control’

Mark Zuckerberg: (Time Magazine: May 20, 2010)

Ultimately, however, I fervently espouse the view that the creative citizen, empowered by knowledge and the confidence such creativity brings, will bring these surveillance capitalists to heel. The key is to make the operations of Surveillance Capitalists visible and salient to all.

Suitably alerted, more and more of us will use the elements of these services that deliver utility to us while at the same time finding ways to protect the rights that are important to us.

If necessary, we will use competitive products to deliver the same services. We will perhaps take more overt and sensible security measures online and perhaps even adopt ever more elaborate subterfuges to protect our identity if necessary.

Regulators will intervene more actively, at national and international levels, to protect the interests of the users of the (valuable) products and services provided by the global tech. industry.

Just because Surveillance Capitalists covet the details and secrets of our private life doesn’t mean we have to oblige them.

As a last resort, there is always the option to disengage.

Nobody is forcing any one of us to feed the beast.

Surveillance Capitalism may be a big, bad wolf, but that does not mean that the savvy online user of its services needs to be afraid of it in any way.

Who’s afraid of Sergey Brin?  I’m not.