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You Are Not a Gadget

You Are Not a Gadget

15.5.2013 7:58

Several media commentators observed recently how quickly the authorities were able to find Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two young Chechen brothers who, by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s admission, perpetrated the bomb attacks which killed 3 and injured 264 at the Boston Marathon on 15 April. Authorities sifted through thousands of pieces of evidence, including especially a mass of digital photos and video clips, both from official surveillance and those provided by the public and uploaded online. Within two days they have found the suspects and during a massive police operation they hunted them down. The power of technology has demonstrated itself in one of the most poignant ways yet.

Evgeny Morozov, a visiting scholar of Stanford University, writer and researcher, studies political and social implications of technology. Morozov is highly critical of the popular view that the Internet is helping to democratize authoritarian regimes and that technology and social networking are in themselves good for democracy. Instead, he argues that it could also be a powerful tool for engaging in mass surveillance, political repression, and spreading nationalist and extremist propaganda. He says that technology is in fact the perfect tool for repressive states to control their citizens. According to Morozov, the Internet's 'darker' side is the capability for information control and manipulation of new media space. Having been born in Belarussia, he probably knows what he is talking about. Judging by the speed of police action in Boston you may imagine that our own democratic society, dotted by CCTV cameras on every corner, with individual’s personal data displayed online, free to peruse without a warrant, is becoming a Big Brother version of itself, too.

There are numerous examples how technology affects power structures. Merely suspending the internet may be a blunt instrument which backfires. On January 28th 2011 the Mubarak government in Egypt shut down the internet in anticipation of protests. That made activists rush onto the streets, possibly hastening the regime’s end. Controlling the internet can be a far more effective tool. China is very good at it. Other countries are more subtle. Turkey, for instance, constantly adjusts its levels of filtering depending on demands from both the authorities and the general public.

Jaron Zepel Lanier is a pioneer of virtual-reality technology and a Silicon Valley digital-guru. Definitely an insider of the industry, currently working as a Microsoft scholar. He too, however, doesn’t have much good to say about the current state of affairs on the world-wide web. In his famous online essay in 2006 he coined the term Digital Maoism. In his book “You Are Not a Gadget” (2010) he criticized Web 2.0, accusing giants like Facebook and Google of being “spy agencies.

His explanation of the way Google translator works, for instance, is a graphic example of how a giant just takes (or “appropriates without compensation”) and monetizes the work of the crowd. One of the fantastic free services on Google is that you can upload a passage in English to Google Translate and you get back the Czech translation. Most people don’t know how this is done. If pressed, they would probably say there’s some magic artificial intelligence in the cloud, some super clever algorithm that knows how to translate. What a wonderful thing that this is available for free.

In reality, Google has gathered an enormous body of information from real live translators who have translated phrases, and then when your text comes in, Google searches through that data to find similar passages and creates a collage of previous translations. It’s very clever but very much like Facebook, it’s selling people their advertiser-targetable personal identities, buying habits, etc. back to themselves. Google Translate produces a result that is increasingly high quality, available for free and in an instant. In the meantime, the original translators aren’t paid for their work—their work was just appropriated. So by taking value off the books, you’re actually stripping them of the potential income and thus shrinking the economy. The name of the game is ”whoever has the biggest computer can analyze everyone else to their advantage and concentrate wealth and power”.

Lanier is suggesting we are outsourcing ourselves into insignificant advertising-fodder. Jobs in creative professions, such as music and writing, have disappeared, thanks to the ease of communication and copying. More traditional middle-class jobs may be next.

The architecture of Web 2.0 is to blame. While internet was originally open and free, the system has been hijacked by a handful of companies which set up free services—e-mail, social networks, search—and then started to offer them to gullible users in exchange for full access to and ownership of their data. This type of exchange favours the biggest companies which possess an irresistible attraction. While they grow even bigger and soon also rich on the abundance of data collected at nearly zero cost, ordinary people are not paid anything.

As Mr Lanier points out, the industry’s leaders have accumulated great power. For centuries the world has been kept in order by the impulses of religion or the government. Is it technology’s turn now?

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