What’s in a name?

On my way to Brussels to chair a discussion on Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism I fell to reading Leo Marx’s celebrated essay, ”Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept”, in which he ponders when — and why — the term ‘technology’ emerged. The term — in its modern sense of “the mechanical arts generally” did not enter public discourse until around 1900 “when a few influential writers, notably Thorstein Veblen and Charles Beard, responding to German usage in the social sciences, accorded technology a pivotal role in shaping modern industrial society.”

Marx thinks that, to a cultural historian, some new terms, when they emerge, serve “as markers, or chronological signposts, of subtle, virtually unremarked, yet ultimately far-reaching changes in culture and society.”

His assumption, he writes,

”is that those changes, whatever they were, created a semantic—indeed, a conceptual—void, which is to say, an awareness of certain novel developments in society and culture for which no adequate name had yet become available. It was this void, presumably, that the word technology, in its new and extended meaning, eventually would fill.”

Which brought me back to musing about Zuboff’s new book and why it (and the two or three major essays of hers that preceded it) came as a flash of illumination. Especially the title. What ‘void’ (to use Marx’s idea) does it fill?

On reflection I think the answer lies in the conceptual vacuity of the terms we have traditionally used to describe the phenomenon of digital technology — in particular the trope of “the Fourth Industrial Revolution” beloved of the Davos crowd, or “the digital era” (passim). For one thing these terms are drenched in technological determinism, implying as they do that it’s the technology and its innate affordances that are driving contemporary history. In that sense these cliches are the spiritual heirs of “the age of Machinery” — Thomas Carlyle’s coinage to describe the industrial revolution of his day.

That’s why ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ represents a conceptual breakthrough. It does not assume that our condition is inexorably determined by the innate affordances of digital technology, but by particular ways in which capitalism has morphed in order to exploit it for its own purposes.

The perniciousness of ‘personalisation’

Interesting Scientific American article by Brett Frischmann and Devan Desai on how — paradoxically — personalised stimuli can produce homogenous responses:

This personalized-input-to-homogenous-output (“PIHO”) dynamic is quite common in the digital networked environment. What type of homogenous output would digital tech companies like to produce? Often, companies describe their objective as “engagement,” and that sounds quite nice, as if users are participating actively in very important activities. But what they mean is much narrower. Engagement usually refers to a narrow set of practices that generate data and revenues for the company, directly or via its network of side agreements with advertisers, data brokers, app developers, AI trainers, governments and so on.

For example, Facebook offers highly personalized services on a platform optimized to produce and reinforce a set of simple responses — scrolling the feed, clicking an ad, posting content, liking or sharing a post. These actions generate data, ad revenue, and sustained attention. It’s not that people always perform the same action; that degree of homogeneity and social control is neither necessary for Facebook’s interests nor our concerns. Rather, for many people much of the time, patterns of behavior conform to “engagement” scripts engineered by Facebook.

The point about what the companies actually regard as ‘user engagement’ is a useful reminder of how tech companies have become consummately adept at Orwellian doublespeak and euphemism. “In our time”, Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language”, “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” Well, in our time, we have strategic euphemisms like “the sharing economy”, “user engagement” and “connecting people”.

The end of The End of History man?

From a scarifying review by Stephen Holmes of Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Identity: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment:

Fukuyama is right to reject criticism that his first book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), was an expression of liberal triumphalism. Its gloomy insistence on the spiritual meaninglessness likely to befall late capitalist societies, in which atheist consumers have nothing serious to live for, rules out such breezy optimism. But he did imply, paradoxically, that after the wholly unanticipated collapse of communism there would be no more surprises about “the default form of government for much of the world, at least in aspiration.” What he now sees, but could not have foreseen at the time, was that the high tide of liberal democracy would last a mere fifteen years: “Beginning in the mid-2000s, the momentum toward an increasingly open and liberal world order began to falter, then went into reverse.” Identity politics, he has now concluded, explains why liberal democracy has ceased to impress much of the world as the ideal form of political and social organization.

Fukuyama’s analysis, says Holmes,

is flawed in several ways. Three decades ago, he argued that the human desire for respect and recognition was the driving force behind the universal embrace of liberal democracy. Today, he depicts the human desire for respect and recognition as the driving force behind the repudiation of liberal democracy. The reader’s hope for some account, or even mention, of this extraordinary volte face goes unfulfilled. Nor does Fukuyama squarely address the impossibility of explaining recent ups and downs in the prestige of liberal democracy by invoking an eternal longing of the human soul. What’s more, he fails to consider the possibility that after 1989 the obligation for ex-Communist countries to imitate the West, which was how his End-of-History thesis was put into practice, might itself have been experienced in countries like Hungary and Poland as a source of humiliation and subordination destined to excite antiliberal resentment and an aggressive reassertion of nationalism.

Wow! Great review..

Hypocrisy on stilts

Terrific FT column by Rana Foroohar. Sample:

If the Facebook revelations prove anything, they show that its top leadership is not liberal, but selfishly libertarian. Political ideals will not get in the way of the company’s efforts to protect its share price. This was made clear by Facebook’s hiring of a rightwing consulting group, Definers Public Affairs, to try and spread misinformation about industry rivals to reporters and to demonise George Soros, who had a pipe bomb delivered to his home. At Davos in January, the billionaire investor made a speech questioning the power of platform technology companies.

Think about that for a minute. This is a company that was so desperate to protect its top leadership and its business model that it hired a shadowy PR firm that used anti-Semitism as a political weapon. Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, founded by Mr Soros, wrote in a letter last week to Ms Sandberg: “The notion that your company, at your direction”, tried to “discredit people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest Facebook’s role in disseminating vile propaganda is frankly astonishing to me”.

I couldn’t agree more. Ms Sandberg says she didn’t know about the tactics being used by Definers Public Affairs. Mr Zuckerberg says that while he understands “DC type firms” might use such tactics, he doesn’t want them associated with Facebook and has cancelled its contract with Definers.

The irony of that statement could be cut with a knife. Silicon Valley companies are among the nation’s biggest corporate lobbyists. They’ve funded many academics doing research on topics of interest to them, and have made large donations to many powerful politicians…

There is a strange consistency in the cant coming from Zuckerberg and Sandberg as they try to respond to the NYT‘s exhumation of their attempts to avoid responsibility for Facebook’s malignancy. It’s what PR flacks call “plausible deniability”. Time and again, the despicable or ethically-dubious actions taken by Facebook apparently come as a complete surprise to the two at the very top of the company — Zuckerberg and Sandberg. I’m afraid that particular cover story is beginning to look threadbare.

The benefits of having an honest business model

Interesting column by Farhad Manjoo:

Because Apple makes money by selling phones rather than advertising, it has been able to hold itself up as a guardian against a variety of digital plagues: a defender of your privacy, an agitator against misinformation and propaganda, and even a plausible warrior against tech addiction, a problem enabled by the very irresistibility of its own devices.

Though it is already more profitable than any of its rivals, Apple appears likely to emerge even stronger from tech’s season of crisis. In the long run, its growing strength could profoundly alter the industry.

For years, start-ups aiming for consumer audiences modeled themselves on Google and Facebook, offering innovations to the masses at rock-bottom prices, if not for free. But there are limits to the free-lunch model.

If Apple’s more deliberate business becomes the widely followed norm, we could see an industry that is more careful about tech’s dangers and excesses. It could also be one that is more exclusive, where the wealthy get the best innovations and the poor bear more of the risks.

Yep. They wind up as feedstock for surveillance capitalism. The moral of the story: honest business models — in which you pay for what you get — are better. Or, as Manjoo puts it:

The thrust of Apple’s message is simple: Paying directly for technology is the best way to ensure your digital safety, and every fresh danger uncovered online is another reason to invest in the Apple way of life.

The problem is that that particular ‘way of life’ is expensive.

The case against business schools (and the MBA degree, among other things)

From “The Case against Credentialism” by James Fallows, an intriguing essay published 23 years ago:

The rise of the M.B.A. has occurred during precisely the era in which, as anyone who follows business magazines is aware, the content of graduate business training has come under increasing attack. “We have created a monster,” H. Edward Wrapp, of the University of Chicago’s business school, wrote in 1980, in Dun’s Review. “The business schools have done more to insure the success of the Japanese and West German invasion of America than any one thing I can think of.” I’d close every one of the graduate schools of business,” Michael Thomas, an investment banker and author, wrote in The New York Times.

The specific case against business schools is that they have neglected certain skills and outlooks that are essential to America’s commercial renaissance while inculcating values that can do harm. The traditional strength of business education has been to provide students with a broad view of many varied business functions—marketing, finance, production, and so forth. But like sociology and political science, business training has gotten all rapped up in mathematical models and such ideas as can be boiled down to numbers. This shift has led schools to play down two fundamental but hard-to-quantify business imperatives: creating the conditions that will permit the design and production of high-quality goods, and waging the constant struggle to inspire, cajole, discipline, lead, and in general persuade employees to work in common cause.

Every time I see a company buying back its shares rather than investing in R&D and product development, I think of this.

But Fallows’s essay is about much more than this. He sees the rise of ‘credentialism’ as a process that had three roots:

  • The conversion of jobs into “professions” (see, for example, Mark Twain’s account — in Life on the Mississippi — of the way riverboat captains contrived to form themselves into a professional ‘guild’ to exclude outsiders and incomers). Once, “anyone could declare himself a doctor or a teacher or a lawyer, and the choice about who prospered and who failed would be left to ‘the market’, including people who died after trying to cure their cholera with snake oil. Afterward, those who wanted to enter the professions had to go to school, and once they had their credentials they enjoyed a near-tenured status they had previously been denied.” Business managers, says Fallows, began ‘professionalizing’ about the same time that the other groups did, but their alliance with educational institutions developed more slowly. The new body of knowledge that turned business into a ‘profession’ was created by the rise of huge, complex, integrated corporations. By 1910 graduate schools of business had been established at Dartmouth and Harvard.
  • The invention of IQ tests and the dawning of the idea that ‘intelligence’ was a single, real, measurable, and unchanging trait that severely limited each person’s occupational choice. IQ testing was the essential tool for replacing nepotism and corruption with a meritocracy. It also marked the beginning of the psychometrics which are now the curse of surveillance capitalism.
  • the use of government power to influence education by the creation of different educational “tracks” and foster vocational — as well as academic — schools, thereby channelling people toward certain occupations which essentially determined the degree of social mobility they would enjoy in life.

This is a terrific, illuminating essay which takes the long view of the last century or so, and in doing so helps to explain how we arrived at our current predicament.

So what’s the problem with Facebook?

Interesting NYT piece by Kevin Roose in which he points out that the key question about regulating Facebook is not that lawmakers know very little about how it works, but whether they have the political will to regulate it. My hunch is that they don’t, but if they did then the first thing to do would be fix on some clear ideas about what’s wrong with the company.

Here’s the list of possibilities cited by Roose:

  • Is it that Facebook is too cavalier about sharing user data with outside organizations?
  • Is it that Facebook collects too much data about users in the first place?
  • Is it that Facebook is promoting addictive messaging products to children?
  • Is it that Facebook’s news feed is polarizing society, pushing people to ideological fringes?
  • Is it that Facebook is too easy for political operatives to exploit, or that it does not do enough to keep false news and hate speech off users’ feeds?
  • Is it that Facebook is simply too big, or a monopoly that needs to be broken up?

How about: all of the above?

Facebook and the CCTV effect

This morning’s Observer column:

Jeremy Paxman, who once served as Newsnight’s answer to the pit-bull terrier, famously outlined his philosophy in interviewing prominent politicians thus: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” This was unduly prescriptive: not all of Paxman’s interviewees were outright liars; they were merely practitioners of the art of being “economical with the truth”, but it served as a useful heuristic for a busy interviewer.

Maybe the time has come to apply the same heuristic to Facebook’s public statements…

Read on

How about an Angry Founders Club?

Lovely rant by Dave Winer:

We should start an “Angry Founders of the Internet” social club to discuss what the fuck happened and how can we tell people about the magic that underlies the crapware that the bigco’s are shoveling at us. It really is beautiful and amazing in there. Think of it this way. It’s easier to take the Interstate highway everywhere, but if you do that, you miss the charming B&Bs, the dramatic beaches, restaurants, jazz clubs. The thrill of riding a bike, hiking the Appalachian Trail, skiing. All that intellectually unperpins this.

I’m not a ‘founder’ — though I count some of them among my friends. But I sympathise with Dave. The technology remains as magical as ever. It’s the corporate capture of it that rankles — plus the passivity and gullibility of so many of our fellow-humans.