I’ve never been good at predicting the future especially when it comes to computing, programming, technology, and business. I didn’t foresee the transformative power of the cell phone, personal computer, or the worldwide web. If I had been able to glimpse the future, I might have chosen to continue my early trajectory during the late sixties and seventies studying Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech. That bygone era was prior to the tech revolution in personal computing and semiconductor development. At the time we only had limited access to digital calculators in designated classrooms and were still required to use our mechanical analogue computers – our slide rules.
My education involved learning early programming and the clunky languages available at the time – Algol, Cobol, and Fortran. Our class would be given a problem to solve and we had to design a program using computer code. There was only one mainframe computer on campus for students to use. We would first have to wait in line at the computer center to use the keypunch machines to type out the punch cards necessary to run the program. We would then need to schedule an appointment to run our stack of punch cards. After waiting a day or two for the results, we were finally able to retrieve our printout. If we had made any mistakes, the program would be kicked back out and we would have to start the process all over again.
None of this coding logic was intuitive for me and I invariably made mistakes. It was frustrating and I was always playing catchup and rushing to try to meet a class deadline. I was being distracted by the psychedelic cultural revolution that had recently reached Atlanta and my interests shifted more toward the arts and philosophy. But I had an incentive to remain in engineering school so as to keep my student deferment. Dropping out would have meant being drafted for combat in Vietnam.
I had no idea about the coming connected future where powerful computers could be held in the palm of our hand; our present-day iPhones are many times more powerful than the large mainframe we all shared at Tech. And I didn’t anticipate the necessity of digitalizing our older technologies. These were the visions of computer nerds whose pragmatic logical thinking was far superior than mine. I ended up not using my degree to find an entry-level job with a tech company and a fast-track to a digital career. I can take some small comfort in my decision in that very few of us had envisioned a future of interactive technologies. Even the best science fiction of the day missed the prediction of the worldwide web.
But how has the digital revolution turned out for us and what kind of world do we inhabit today? I’ve been researching some incisive critiques of the Silicon Valley Industrial Complex and want to share them with you. One of my favorite podcasts is The Ralph Nader Hour and he has recently interviewed both Franklin Fore, the author of the important new book ‘World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Technology’ along with Douglas Ruskoff whose newest book I’m currently reading, ’Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity’.
Colonization of the mind by GAFAThese two authors have each made the provocative premise that our attention and behavior has been hijacked by giant tech monopolies – namely Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon – or GAFA for short. Microsoft would be the fifth spoke on the wheel although it has taken a back seat over the last two decades during the massive social experiment that the four companies have orchestrated.
These new monopolies have unprecedented power and privilege. Since they all provide convenience and free services, they have been given a free pass by our society to grow ever larger. Amazon has cornered web sales, Facebook has two billion subscribers throughout the world for their social networking platform, Google has a lock on information and search engine technology, and Apple has wrapped up the most intuitive and seamless hardware and software interfaces. These companies do not really compete with each other. And in their respective areas of the economy, they have no real challenge from any smaller companies in the number two position.
Amazon CEO and billionaire founder Jeff Bezos is the new owner of one of the few remaining national newspapers, The Washington Post. In addition to his recent acquisition of Whole Foods, Amazon maintains a multimillion dollar contract with the CIA for cloud computing services. A few decades ago Bezos would have faced fierce opposition by Congress for the conflict of interests inherent in his buyouts. But anti-monopoly laws have continually been eroded since the Reagan administration, and today Amazon is able to operate with impunity.
Rushkoff and Fore explain in their respective books how these companies were able to make us hopelessly dependent. Once we are hooked, we are exploited, our online behavior manipulated, and we are deprived of our privacy. Like an occupying force, the technopolies have imposed their will on us, much of the time without our knowledge or permission. GAFA has a grand design for us – to make massive profit from the monetization of our private lives so that we are less autonomous, less creative, and less human.
In fact, humans are no longer part of the equation. Jobs are being lost due to the increased automation of the workplace. Tech companies employ 10 times fewer employees than traditional industry. Wall Street loves the productivity produced per worker and the savings from lower labor costs, and so their stocks are bid up to the stratosphere.
Statistical algorithms based on web page visits and purchases are used to predict our future behavior. Our data is used to design individualized ad campaigns that no longer look like advertising. It’s less about persuasion and more about coercion. On Facebook, advertisers use pay-for-play content that’s targeted toward selected audiences and are merged with the natural flow of information between friends on their news feeds. Since Facebook relies on algorithms instead of people to regulate their advertisers, the lack of oversight has enabled the fake news that’s disseminated by foreign agencies and white supremacist hate groups. It looks like Facebook has a real public relations problem going into the future.
Can we maintain an informed citizenry when 60% of Americans get their primary news from their Facebook feed? Much of the content is based on our own beliefs and biases that are affirmed and amplified. Social websites have allowed for the rise of the Alt-Right and the election of Trump. We can only hope that Facebook is digging its own grave. The company has been exposed as a marketing platform masquerading as an online community. We now know that we are not their customers – we are in fact the resource being exploited.
The corporate nooses of the world are tightening around our necks. Their business plans no longer view us as citizens or even as consumer serfs. For them, we’re just big data – a resource to be manipulated and exploited. Since the credit and buying power of the shrinking middle class has been tapped out, the mining of our personal data has become as important to their business model as our actual purchases. How could our data be as valuable as money? Well to start with, our personal data is collected and stored by the web monopolies on their giant server farms and then sold to other companies for profit. Or even worse, our personal lives are opened up and sold to government agencies.
A growing threat are the massive fine-print contracts that are now the norm for web user agreements. We are required to click on these agreements before loading apps and programs. Though we intuitively know that that they aren’t designed for our best interests, we really can’t refuse. We go ahead and click and hope for the best.
If we were to scrutinize these agreements, we’d realize that we are waiving our rights to sue companies for any harm we may suffer from their faulty products or services. We aren’t allowed to join in class-actions suits and instead we have agreed to compulsory arbitration conducted outside of the courts. Also buried in modern agreements is a clause called ‘unilateral modification’ meaning that the company can change the contract in any way at any time and the consumer has forfeited their legal rights to seek a settlement in the judicial system.
These complex legal protections for corporations could only have been fabricated with the consent of a government that is in collusion with corporate interests. “Profits over people” is the unspoken slogan of corporations and our government.
This brave new world that the authors reveal has already been manifested – much of it has happened with our participation and knowing complicity. Is it too late to take our private lives back from the brink? It would require us to drop out of all the platforms and networks we subscribe to, and who really wants to do that. But perhaps we can opt out of the worst abuses of predation that these companies practice. I’m careful about where I make my online purchases and I only use Facebook when promoting our Naro film events. I also don’t enable Adobe Flash Player with my primary search engine.
I use Ghostery, the privacy browser extension, to obstruct the covert activities of third party data mining. I also have downloaded Ad Block to obstruct those obnoxious ads. The downside is that some commercial websites will no longer allow entry to their site before disabling these security apps. That includes media companies like The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine. My solution? Don’t visit those sites.
What kind of system would create technologies that make peoples lives better? Is it possible to return to a steady-state economy rather than our predatory Wall Street growth economy? How can these predatory monopolies be regulated or broken up by anti-trust legislation? How could society implement the ethical policies needed to assess new technologies and their impact on us all? Can we resurrect our democracy? These crucial questions demand an expanded public dialogue to address needed solutions.
We may draw some hope from what we’ve learned from the public scrutiny and organized resistance against similar predatory practices by other industries. For decades we were sold addictive processed food by the food industry without questioning the quality of what we were consuming. Many of us now know better and have opted out of the corporate food chain.
The giant web companies have been marketing their brands and lifestyles in their quest to colonize our mental landscape and addict our behaviors. We’re just now realizing the damage done and waking back up to our authentic selves and the meaning of real community.