Orwell Would Be Proud: Privacy, Corporations and Data Surveillance

What’s the year? 1984. Not quite, it’s 2019 despite the fact that mega-corporation Facebook is running social experiments, the government is listening, and Amazon is watching. Multi-billion dollar corporations and the government are in bed together, and they’re clearly benefiting from each other and all the information they’ve collected on us. We’ve sold our souls (private data) to the Devil (Facebook, Google, Amazon) for eternal euphoria (funny cat videos). But we agreed to it, right? It isn’t spying if we consent to it, whether we’ve read every word of the terms and conditions or not. Maybe sharing your information with one corporation would be better? Let’s combine multiple platforms and just put all the data collection in a one-stop-shop, as Mark Zuckerberg is proposing. You only need one app, one platform, one secure place. You can communicate with your friends and family, make purchases, share images, whatever you like, and it’s all private (right?). Hey, it’s working for China, so why not North America and the rest of the world.

Worst case scenario? We live in an even more Orwellian future than we do now. One single source of information with one single entity in control who is watching us inside and out. Amazon has developed camera technology which they use in their Amazon Go store that can tell the difference between each product in the store and charge the customer accordingly. The fact that these cameras can tell the difference between a soup can and a bag of trail mix isn’t terrifying, but imagine if that technology advances to the point where it can recognize one person from the next. As per usual Amazon is as opaque as ever about what they plan to do with this technology, and there has been speculation whether they’ll sell it to other companies or not, even though they claim they have no plans to. Oh, wait! They’re already selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement and the US government. Better yet, it’s not fine-tuned which leads to more problems than solutions with racial and gender biases. Can you imagine these cameras on every street, watching every move and reporting back to the government (corporations)? Google already knows where you are, but know they’ll be able to see you too.

Best case scenario? We stand up for our right to privacy and put privacy laws like the General Data Protection Regulation in place, which is a decent start to getting these companies to being more transparent. Whether we like what we see when we actually get to see it is another story, but at least we wouldn’t be blindly consenting (which is the biggest paradox) to the kinds of data collection they’re doing and who they’re giving it to. It’s not like all data collection is bad, and it can feed some algorithms (but not all) that help us with discoverability but we need to take the time to examine the ethics involved in data collection and the predictive analytics and data that result from it. There are concerns of social inequality, discrimination and privacy that data mining brings and that have very real effects outside of the digital world. As a society we need to think more critically of who is controlling the algorithms, the data collection and what they’re doing with it because every corporation has their own motives that they’re not keen on sharing with us.

All Hands on Deck: Government Intervention in Data Privacy

Capitalism is so embedded in the way in which our modern North American society operates, impacting all of the transactions and interactions that we have with companies. Big corporations worth billions of dollars have such an incredibly strong sway in what happens in the marketplace, that it seems nearly impossible for an individual or small group to lobby and influence how they do business. In order to gain hold of our data privacy and stop the momentum of surveillance capitalism, change will need to happen at the institutional level. We need to get the government involved.

The data privacy issue continues to grow as more and more details come out about the seemingly endless data that is able to be mined about us right down to our exact travel path on a daily basis (plus our search history, files of all kinds from texts, photos and voice messages, and the list goes on). Unfortunately, I am not the slightest bit surprised when confronted with the amount of information that tech giants like Google and Facebook collect about us. The technology that we use in our daily lives (phones, smart watches, apps, social media platforms etc.) is so interconnected, easily trackable and constantly backed up to servers. We appreciate these services when they help us access information that we want to store like our emails and anything we choose to put into the cloud like documents and photos. We also want instant access to the data of our friends and family (and sometimes even strangers) through our social media accounts and we willingly input data into these services on a daily basis. Our input helps these tech companies create ever more robust platforms that continually learn more and more about us.

What we are much less comfortable with is the data that we don’t see and how that data is ultimately being used. For the most part, our data is being used for capital gains. When it comes to data collection, I believe it’s important to remember that we as users are not really the ultimate customers of services like Facebook and Google. Yes, they have to deliver on some promises in order for people still want to use their services, but ultimately these tech giants are serving the needs of advertisers rather than the readers, browsers and users of their platforms. The bigger they get the more advertising dollars they can bring in.

The tech giants are out to dominate their industries and claim the lion’s share of their markets and they do so by cashing in on more new tech. Giant corporations scoop up new ways of gathering data and tracking users by investing in their own research and development or by buying smaller tech startups (see a list of acquisitions that Facebook has made here) who have tapped into something of interest. Because of their sheer financial power to dominate over other businesses and bully the market, the government is required to step in. 

It is quite interesting to note that even Mark Zuckerberg himself feels that it’s important for data to be regulated, but the big issue remains, how? There are a few examples of cases where the the government has stepped in, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act which was passed in 2018. The three major tenants are:

1. You will have the right to know what information large corporations are collecting about you.
2. You will have the right to tell a business not to share or sell your personal information.
3. You will have the right to protections against businesses which do not uphold the value of your privacy.”

It’s hard to tell presently how well this is working in the state of California, but it shows that passing this type of law is something that people are very interested in doing (even if the big tech giants strongly opposed the bill). But it is these tech giants, and their seemingly unlimited funds, who need to be stopped and the government can’t let them just throw bunch of money around to try to stop the regulations.

We still have a lot of work to do in Canada as the Privacy Commissioner stated that they don’t have the funding they need to adequately protect Canadians against privacy issues. We as citizens need to get more involved to keep pushing our law makers. A new privacy law now ensures that Canadian companies have to let their customers know when their data has been leaked, but what recourse do we have once it’s been leaked? That clearly isn’t good enough.

It’s very easy to feel disenfranchised when you see that corporate giants like Amazon are buddies with the government bodies like the Department of Justice for example, but it is still important that we continue to push law makers for better protection. In reference to this Mike Shatzkin article (via hypothes.is), SFU Master of Publishing student Jaiden Dembo stated “If law can be put in place to help these behemoths grow and dominate the market, then the opposite can be true as well.” Though there is a lot of muddy water to sift through when it comes to data protection and change will take time, it’s something that’s worth fighting for.

 

Facebook’s World Domination Over Our Data

In 1999, Scott McNealy, then-CEO of Sun Microsystems, famously declared, “You have zero privacy now anyway. Get over it.” Google CEO Eric Schmidt warned that “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Mark Zuckerberg, the world’s sixth richest man, decided that privacy was no longer a social norm, “and so we just went for it,” while Alexander Nix, of the data firm Cambridge Analytica — famously employed by both the Brexit and Trump campaigns — brags that his company “profiled the personality of every single adult in the United States of America.” —Samuel Earl, 2017

Continue reading “Facebook’s World Domination Over Our Data”

Loving Big Brother: What Facebook’s Recent Business Decisions Say About Its Vision for the Future Web

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is apparently shifting the company’s focus to users’ privacy. In a blog post, Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook “plans to integrate Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger so that people can communicate privately and directly across networks”. These communications would be fully encrypted, preventing anyone—even Facebook—from seeing the content shared on their services.

While this sounds fantastic in theory, especially in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal early last year, we should wait before cracking open the champagne… Zuckerberg’s new vision for the Internet is, in many ways, more vulnerable to an Orwellian future than our current one reliant on a model of near constant surveillance.

We’ve talked a lot about what the Web used to be and what it has become. We’ve also talked about nostalgia for the days when it was a community which functioned on the dissemination and sharing of ideas rather than a commercial marketplace. One thing I remember distinctly about these conversations was a warning against the Stream and a platform-based Internet—every author we read advocated for a diverse Web with an equally diverse array of websites and voices.

This is something I could not stop thinking about while reading Isaac’s article.

This is a good time to mention that I’m just as creeped out by Facebook’s surveillance as the next person. I’m not comfortable with the company collecting my data and selling it to the highest bidder, and I’m not comfortable with its algorithms inferring my sexuality and interests based on my friends and online behaviour. What I’m even less comfortable with, however, is the already arguably more homogenous Internet becoming a monopoly of a handful of platforms—and I honestly cannot think of anything more terrifying than the general experience of the Internet becoming a single app.

This is essentially what Zuckerberg is advocating for. His decision to merge Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp as well as create a private and secure messaging service is the first step of this, no doubt consciously mimicking China’s incredibly popular app, WeChat. WeChat is a one-stop shop for everything from investing to takeout to intimate conversation—and something the government surveils vigorously in order to collect information on its citizens. Though Facebook promises end-to-end encryption and assures us they will not be hosting their data in countries with questionable human rights reputations, I trust them about as far as I can throw them. Furthermore, even if they do fulfill all these promises, the merging of all three apps—and we can’t forget its newly released answer to Patreon—is a very deliberate step in the direction of a future Internet that resembles an Intranet more than anything else. Why use any other service or website when you can do it all in one place? Though incredibly convenient, it will also put everyone’s data in the hands of one company. And what then? What happens when Facebook is no longer content to keep their private data encrypted? Or when they decide to share it with the government in the interest of safety and security?

I’m also incredibly curious as to how Facebook plans to stop the spread of misinformation if it won’t be looking at what’s being shared on its new messaging service. AI can only moderate to a certain degree; will their algorithms be fact-checking? If so, this presents a whole slew of other problems in terms of how we use language to communicate (will their AI understand hyperbole? Sarcasm?). Will the service be integrated into WhatsApp? Will their public data continue to be sold to the highest bidder? Will their encryption truly prevent even Facebook from seeing users’ content? How am I supposed to trust any of this when Facebook is still beholden to its real clients: its investors? Needless to say, I am made of questions… but according to Isaac’s article, Zuckerberg is tight-lipped about the entire project.

All I’ll say is this: I would much rather have my data gathered, anonymized and then sold before I see Facebook create a monster app that takes over the Web. I am not comfortable with using the same service and company for all my needs; it kills any and all innovation in the market… and I question anyone who doesn’t see Facebook’s recent business decisions as a move towards a singular, app-based experience of the Internet. If a government were taking these steps, people would be alarmed. Why not for a private company who is beholden only to its investors? Whose mission is to protect its own interests over anything else?

Conglomerates and monopolies put great amounts of power and wealth in the hands of a select few. When paired with the Internet, this can turn a tool that was previously used to freely disseminate a wide range of ideas into a singular point of view very easily, especially when those most vulnerable in a society do not have the luxury of boycotting it.

 

The Churning Must Go On

As more news emerges about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I feel myself going through a range of emotions – confusion, disbelief, insecurity, paranoia, anger . . . and resignation. I am sure I am not alone in this flux. We’re all in it together – willingly or unwittingly. As a Facebook user (a decade now), I feel I’ve already shared so much with FB that there is no turning back. They have my number already. But then so do I. I think FB and I finally understand each other. This entire event actually drove me to look for some answers in the Indian mythology (we have answers for everything!).

Samudra Manthan is one of the more popular stories of the Bhagavata Purana, which finds expression in numerous South Asian miniatures and carvings across the ancient Indian kingdoms. It’s a fascinating story of the Devas (good guys) and the Asuras (bad guys) jointly churning the Ocean of Milk or Kshirsagara to obtain the Nectar of Immortality or Amrita. Although initially it is decided that the nectar would be shared equally between the two, but the Devas tricked the Asuras and consumed it all to attain immortality. However Amrita was not the only object that emerged from the Kshirsagara. The Bhagavata Purana describes numerous other living and inanimate beings which were birthed from the Ocean. This episode talks of alliances, treachery, deceit, intentions, desires and problem-management, among other things. But the chief image which is being highlighted is, of course, the manthan itself. The churning.

Mythology expert, Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik says churning is not the same as tug-of-war. Both require a force and a counter-force, but whereas a tug-of-war implies the two sides implementing force at the same time (so that one side may win), churning requires one party to let go while the other applies force, and vice-versa (so that both are benefited). Change in any form has met with reactions and counter-reactions, but we, as a civilization, have never dwelled on them for too long. Kingdoms have emerged, and kingdoms have been devastated; people have settled and people have moved; temples and mosques and churches have been built and destroyed; there has been love, there has been hate, but nothing has been permanent. A constant churning has been in progress – sometimes in good faith, sometimes in ill-will; but much like the Devas and Asuras, we have been realizing the need for alliance and acceptance; the need to rise to the needs of the times; putting the land above everything else, at some point or another.

The Cambridge Analytica episode brought back the churning into focus for me. We’ve been part of the push and pull to unearth the digital delights of this world. We’ve actively contributed with our data to make our lives better. We’ve been tracked, and quite willingly too. I would like to point out that I feel I’ve been tracked not just the last few years on internet, but essentially since my birth. My kindergarten profiled me as a ‘sweet, but talkative child’, the neighbourhood grocery man knew my buying behaviour, the salesman at the clothing store quickly profiled my likes and dislikes about colours and patterns, my parents thought I was a rebel, my friends thought I was crazy cuckoo. Point being, we’ve been profiled forever. It’s nothing new. With the advancement in technology, this profiling has, in a way, made our lives easier. We have better cars, better houses, better clothes, better medicines etc. Someone is paying close attention to our likes and dislikes and making things just for us. So far, so good.

So while I happily consume the Nectar of Ocean, much like our gods did, I cannot ignore the other darker things that emerge from this or cry unfair. The data that benefited us, can also manipulate us. We need to be aware of that. Alternatively, we can disconnect from the internet and go back to our old ways. But really, is it possible to be disconnected in today’s world? We’re all caught in the spiral now. We can either roll with it or it’ll churn us, whether we like it or not.

What we need today is awareness, of our actions and the implications it can have; not only on us as an individual, but society as a whole. The greatest thing about our world today is the ease of communication. We’re on the cusp of being connected to every other individual on this earth. We’re not without power.  We have access to higher thoughts, ideologies, and intelligence to push back on manipulative intents. It’s all about the push and pull.

The churning must go on.

Anumeha Gokhale

A Wild Goose Chase

As I put on my soothsayer hat and predict the decline of one of the “Big Four” companies, I feel a sense of irony as I use Google search extensively to come to my conclusion—Google could be the next one to fall. As things stand now, the four companies—Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook, collectively own the virtual world that we live in. They look invincible to someone like me, who routinely prostrates herself in front of a browser window or mobile app to get through the day. If asked about the role these companies play in my life, I often flounder over the answer. Yes, I use technology on daily basis to accomplish work, socialize, explore, research, shop and express opinion. But on closer inspection I sense a measure of helplessness as my life gets documented without my explicit consent. I am left questioning the role these companies play in my life and vice versa.

I feel Google might meet their hypothetical doomsday within the next decade. Technology giants often meet their end not with a bang, but with a whimper. Take the case of Nokia, Kodak, and much closer to home—Microsoft, on its decline. These one-time market leaders are no longer the same. In the dynamic virtual world, things change extremely fast and it’s inevitable for companies to pivot in response to the winds of change. Google has been consistently investing in building its AI that intends to gather, rearrange and disseminate the collective knowledge of this world. They have set themselves a humongous task that is primarily financed by their ad revenues. Google enjoyed the first-mover advantage in the online advertising field. Ad revenue contributes to 90% of their earnings. The growth in the ad revenues has flattened over the years because of Amazon and FB in-app advertising. This exposes Google’s handicap. They have tried and failed to establish their presence in the retail or social media. Much of the ad revenue is directed through social media sites and Google is definitely feeling the pinch. They have been confined to browser window that serves as a transactional interface to connect other websites. This affords a very limited interaction between the user and Google.

Also, consider the coping mechanism we all develop to keep the noise of ads away. Advertising experts suggest that we are inevitably developing “Banner-blindness” that affords us to tune out the ads that pop-up in our browsers or mobile apps. Considering this and the fleeting affection we have for Google, which is sometimes an afterthought—a means to an end; what does it mean for Google?

The era of ruling on data alone is over. I feel that the next big move in the tech is context. How well do these companies know us? How well do the understand us? What value proposition are they offering us? What do we actually want? These are the questions all four companies need to deliberate on. But being on the back foot with their ad revenues, Google is vulnerable to becoming redundant in our lives. Unless they can provide a richer context to their searches and not merely peddle their partners, Google will lose their edge to their nearest competitor.

I agree that this theory has holes in it and can be countered in hundreds of ways. The arguments for and against are moot at this point. Because only time will tell how the cards fall. One can only predict the direction of the wind. And Google might have some turbulence ahead of them.

We’re not above this disruption heading for us either. Our interdependency on technology is growing day-by-day. Does the health of the big four companies affect us too? Maybe yes. Maybe no. It all depends on our perspective.

There’s a Zen Koan that goes like this: “If a man puts a baby goose in the bottle and feeds it until it is full-grown, how can the man get the goose out without killing it or breaking the bottle?”

The idea behind any Koan or riddle is to provoke doubt and question the status quo. The point is to sit with the sheer illogic of the situation; tearing at it with the logical part of your mind, until finally your mind surrenders further attempts to analyse and makes a leap into “pure consciousness”. In this case, the goose is your consciousness and the glass bottle is the mind. You might start with raking your head about ways to get the poor goose out of the confines of the bottle, until you realise in a moment of utter clarity that there is no goose; there in no bottle.

Similarly, we are the geese living in the shiny technology bottle bearing the label of the big four. We can either live in it or we can simply decide not to. If we stop being the goose, there will be no bottle. It’s that simple.

Anumeha Gokhale

 

GAFA isn’t going anywhere

I would like to preface my post by proclaiming that I do not think any of the “big four” will decline. Perhaps once upon a time this was a possibility, but by now they are so entrenched in society that they will never deflate. Although they compete with each other, GAFA is a starfish: there are many arms, but if one is cleaved from the body, it will eventually grow back. Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are entwined and in many ways they depend heavily on one another.

Even though I do not believe GAFA is going anywhere,  I would like to speculate on what would happen if one of its members shrivels up. Let’s go back to high school physics class and recall what the Law of Conservation of Energy says: “energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed from one form to another” (Wikipedia 2018). If we lose one starfish arm of GAFA, it will not die. Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple each have enough capital (physical, economical, geographical, social, etc.) that it has to go somewhere. My prediction is that if one member dies, its clout would be bought or otherwise absorbed somewhere else. I assume that it would be immediately snatched up by the one or more of the remaining members (strengthening them even more) or by one of the many companies watching from the bushes, just waiting for one of big guys to falter so something new can swoop in; take over; and profit, profit, profit.

Again, although I doubt it will happen, I still want to hypothesize on how the wheels of a GAFA decline might be put into motion. Privacy becoming more important to us is my biggest guess, although it still seems quite unlikely. As we saw in our class discussion, the majority of us aren’t too worried about what happens with our personal information gathered by big corporations. Even though our perspectives on this topic are shifting to be more complacent, there are obviously still people who oppose the blind signing away of our privacy rights as we are persuaded to do with websites such as Facebook. In 2012, “the Supreme Court of Canada [gave] the go-ahead to a class-action lawsuit against Facebook over privacy rights” (Fine 2017). If the government decides to get involved with how these websites prey on our privacy, we may see their demise, although it isn’t easy for the government to get involved in the first place. In Emerging Challenges in Privacy Law: Comparative Perspectives, the editors tell us

the core principles of data privacy law, which are aimed at limiting the collection and processing of personal data (including across national borders), are incompatible with the ‘open’ logic of the Internet. These tensions are especially apparent in Europe, where data protection is regarded as a fundamental right. It is therefore unsurprising that the current EU reform process, which is generally intended to strengthen EU data privacy law, has exposed the structural challenges applying the data privacy paradigm to the Internet, especially in relation to the definition of ‘personal data’ and the potential extraterritorial application of EU law (Witzleb, Lindsay, Paterson, and Rodrick 2014).

If we all decide that our privacy is more important than GAFA members allow for, I can see a potential uprising on the horizon as more and more people balk at what are currently typical privacy agreements. However, an uprising of this sort would have to be just that, an entire uprising, and with the attitude towards our online privacy leaning more to indifference, I don’t see anything radical happening anytime soon.


Further Reading/Articles Referenced

“Conservation of energy.” Wikipedia. January 24, 2018. Accessed January 25, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_of_energy.

Fine, Sean. “Supreme Court gives thumbs-up to privacy lawsuit against Facebook.” The Globe and Mail. June 23, 2017. Accessed January 25, 2018. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/supreme-court-gives-thumbs-up-to-privacy-lawsuit-against-facebook/article35444477/.

Ryan, Doug. “The Fall of the Titans: Why GAFA is Not Here to Stay.” The Huffington Post. July 20, 2017. Accessed January 25, 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-fall-of-the-titans-why-gafa-is-not-here-to-stay_us_59711ae6e4b0545a5c30fead.

Witzleb, Normann, David Lindsay, Moira Paterson, and Sharon Rodrick, eds. 2014. Emerging Challenges in Privacy Law: Comparative Perspectives. Cambridge Intellectual Property and Information Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Accessed January 25, 2018. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107300491.

Apple: The First to Fall?

After much deliberation and moderate amounts of research, I have selected Apple as the first to fall.

Compared to the other three tech giants (Google, Amazon, and Facebook), Apple, while still exceptionally innovative, is not as ahead of the curve as they used to be. Once known for boundary-pushing products consumers didn’t know they needed, they now maintain the status quo by releasing new iPhones and Macs every year. Compared to the other major tech companies, they are much more stagnant.

Apple is valued at $869bn and was founded in 1976 (a full 18 years before Amazon, valued at $566bn), and so their early starter position has been of benefit to them, notably in terms of value of their company (the richest in the world) and in consumer loyalty. So while they have some advantages that will sustain them if business begins to falter, I believe that they are still very susceptible to changes brought about by the more innovative competition and changing consumer behaviours.

The Competition
Unlike Amazon (the e-commerce company), Google (the knowledge internet company), and Facebook (the social internet company), Apple does not have a monopoly on the smartphone or computer industry. Phone brands, such as Samsung and Nexus, or laptop brands, such as Lenovo and Dell, are catching up to Apple in terms of product quality and still have a significant share of the markets (while Apple has stuck to their corner of the market doing what they do best). With Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple was didn’t just make the best products, they made products no one had ever seen before. In recent years, it could be argued that they are no longer the visionary company they once were. Instead, they make small tweaks to their products to make them even more exclusive to the Apple brand, such as different jacks for chargers and headphones.

Meanwhile, Google, Amazon, and Facebook are doing everything they can to stay at the forefront of innovation. Google has all sorts of projects going on, from self-driving cars to artificial intelligence. Amazon plans on piloting cashier-less stores and drone home delivery. And Facebook buys up the competition—including the very popular Instagram and WhatsApp companies. Instagram is more popular than the original Facebook platform with Gen Z, and WhatsApp is popular in countries outside of North America. By acquiring the competition, Facebook is not only eliminating the competition but also capitalizing on multiple growing markets.

And similarly, Amazon is also slowly encroaching on Apple’s products. As Scott Galloway said in an article about how he expects all of the four companies will disappear within 50 years, “The most innovative tech hardware of 2016, it wasn’t the Apple Watch or it wasn’t the Apple Pods, it was the Amazon Echo. If you look at where they are competing against Apple in voice, Siri versus Alexa, Alexa is putting a serious beat on Siri.”

The Customers
Younger generations, namely Gen Z and Millennials, are known for valuing personalized experiences over products. Amazon, Google, and Facebook offer exceptionally personalized services, and so long as there is not a dramatic change in consumer values, there is a good chance they will win out over Apple. Their products offer a portal to the personalized services the other companies offer, but are not personalized in themselves.

As much as Apple has cultivated a very loyal customer base (who is growing older), they have done so through their consistently reliable products—not their exceptional knowledge of their customers (rather, they tell people what they want and need). Additionally, younger generations are more price sensitive, as they struggle to balance the increased cost of living alongside jobs with little security. If there is a cheap, comparable, and unique product on the market, it will not be hard to sell to Gen Z and the Millennials (who now make up 50% of the population).

Apple is no longer doing what they do best, nor are they innovating or catering to their customers. In today’s cutthroat tech industry, there is only so long they can rely on their bank account and their loyal customers before they begin to fall.

Information Sharing Online and in Coffeehouses: Gatekeepers and Social Discourse

Information Sharing Online and in Coffeehouses:
Gatekeepers and Social Discourse

Information sharing today has reached a peak that is unprecedented. Higher literacy rates, the accessibility of the Internet, and the availability of pages online, inclusive of blogs, comments, and profile pages, contribute to a endless stream of information that must be sorted through in order to be understood. Furthermore, what are the side effects of the ways users are sorting through content? By examining the social changes in regard to information sharing during the Age of Enlightenment and comparing them to the challenges of sharing knowledge on a website such as Facebook, this essay will argue that while using algorithms is beneficial for the expansive amount of information on the web, it ultimately leads to a less knowledgeable, less informed online community. It will examine how the Age of Enlightenment thrived where the Internet is failing despite the possibility for progressiveness and innovation.

The Age of Enlightenment was a period in eighteenth-century Europe in which there was a movement against the then-current state of society, inclusive of church and government. In pre-Enlightenment Europe, “individual dignity and liberty, privacy, and human and civic rights… [were] virtually nonexistent… ‘burned and buried’ in medieval society and pre-Enlightenment traditionalism” (Zafirovski 9). This illustrates the church and state’s role as gatekeepers of knowledge, allowing only what they deemed as appropriate to be accessed by society. Zafirovski states that during the Enlightenment, “Descartes, Voltaire, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Condorcet, and others emphasized overcoming ignorance and intellectual immaturity, including religious and other superstition and prejudice” (4). He is referring to the major thinkers of this time, those who wrote public essays on the tenets of enlightenment and reason. It was the age where past ideals were rejected in order to champion the concept of individual thought and voice. It was not a period of “anti-” religion or state, but of individual liberty and of pushing against absolutism. During this time, the Encyclopédie was published, which disseminated the thoughts of the Enlightenment. Diderot, the editor of the project, is quoted to have said that the goal of the Encyclopédie was to “change the way people think” (“Encyclopédie”). During the Enlightenment, the opinions of those who wanted to remain within the norms of pre-Enlightenment society existed alongside the dissertations of those who proclaimed it was time for change: “The inner logic, essential process, and ultimate outcome of the Enlightenment are the destruction of old oppressive, theocratic, irrational, and inhuman social values and institutions, and the creation of new democratic, secular, rational, and humane ones through human reason” (Zafirovski 7). The thinking that existed pre-Enlightenment had to occur; the prominent thinkers emerged from a society of rules they did not relate to. In other words, they had to know the culture they were living in very deeply in order to argue strongly against it.

As stated previously in regards to the Encyclopédie, the dissemination of knowledge was paramount during the Enlightenment. For the sake of this paper, the major sources of knowledge-spread are deduced to be of two origins: book publishing and the salons and coffeehouses. As illustrated much earlier through Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, the ability to spread printed information became much simpler and more efficient with the invention of the moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg. Previous to this invention, religious scribes hand wrote all of the books that were available. Because this was such an intensive process and paper was handmade, books were very expensive. Yet, as time went on, the efficiency of the printing press grew, especially with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This meant lower prices and therefore more availability. In turn, literacy grew. Furthermore, the inexpensive cost allowed the increased spread of journals, books, newspapers, and pamphlets (“Age of Enlightenment”). More people could engage with texts because of higher literacy rates and the growing number of texts that were now available. Once articles, essays, and books were read, they were also discussed in places such as coffeehouses and salons where both men and women could meet to debate and discuss the ideas of the time. This created a social environment that was a catalyst for new philosophies. In fact, the idea for the Encyclopédie was conceptualized at the Café Procope in Paris, one of the coffeehouses of Paris that is still maintained (“Age of Enlightenment”). Furthermore, because anyone could come to discuss politics and philosophy, it undermined the existing class structure, thus allowing for multiple perspectives in one place.

At the time of its introduction, the possibility of how an open public internet would become so ingrained in human society and culture could not have been predicted. The rapid growth of the Internet is considered by Douglas Comer to be a result of its decentralization and the “non-proprietary nature of internet-protocols” (qtd. in “Internet”). During the time in which the Internet became popular, the speed of information growth was unprecedented. New websites with personalized homepages and links emerged as people began to explore the World Wide Web. Today, sites such as Facebook act as home websites replacing the “homepages” of before. This, as shown in “The Rise of Homeless Media,” is beginning to replace the old ways of the web. Facebook is becoming a much bigger entity than the developers imagined at its conception. While this change may mean that the web is becoming streamlined, it comes at a cost of control to these site users. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, the popular free web hosting services provided a very personalized experience. Sites such as Angelfire, Freewebs, LiveJournal, and DiaryLand relied on subscribers and ads in order to allow their sites to run freely and in a way that allowed users to personalize their content, with the exception of ad placement for non-subscribers. Personalization occurred through writing code such as HTML. Furthermore, serious bloggers acted as a catalyst for other voices, creating a community where readers were linked to other bloggers and informative sites of related ideologies and/or topics. For instance, Mike Shatzkin’s  The Shatzkin Files hyperlinks to other sites that may be of interest to a reader of that particular subject. Though it is a fairly recent blog, it is basic in its design, reminiscent of much earlier blogging interfaces. Today, blogs are increasingly popular and come with pre-made themes, making coding unnecessary although still possible on platforms such as WordPress. On Facebook however, users cannot change the style of their page. This control of style is one way the web is becoming more streamlined. The primary benefit to living on a home website such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn is accessibility. Each site has their own niche purpose and learning to code is not a necessity to run these pages. One simply needs to know how to link the various pages properly to allow for an integrated movement across platforms. Because users do not need to understand code in order to have a profile on these websites, their user base is much larger. This is comparable to the accessibility to literature in the eighteenth century which made reading a pastime for more than just an educated elite.

This ease-of-use has led to a global reach of perspectives. In this sense, the age of the Internet can be correlated with the Age of Enlightenment in that the proliferation of knowledge is now much easier than it was in the past. Today, over one billion pages exist on the web (Woollaston). The billions of people using the web are provided access to a multitude of differing perspectives and insights (“Internet Usage on the Web by Regions”). Though this has the potential for tension, it has been proven to help develop critical thinking and empathy. In the article, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Edel Rodriguez states, “social diversity… can cause discomfort, rougher interactions, a lack of trust, greater perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, less cohesion, more concern about disrespect, and other problems.” However, being confronted with these problems and having to mediate around diversity enhances creativity, “leading to better decision making and problem solving” (Rodriguez). Thus, diversity creates adversity, but provides good results when people are encouraged to consider other people’s perspectives. Our minds are prompted to work harder when disagreement arises as a result of social differences. Thus, a difference in perspective “[encourages] the consideration of alternatives” (Rodriguez). This article, published by Scientific American, puts words to this phenomenon being studied by a multitude of people, including “organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers” (Rodriguez). It illustrates why salons and coffeehouses were so important as places to spark conversation. They were hubs of discourse that generated innovative ideas and ideologies, sometimes for pleasure, but other times to create planned social movements such as those that led to the French Revolution. Similarly, the web provides an outlet for people to create discourse. Though not a physical space like salons, the web allows for a greater global discourse to occur; it should be the perfect platform for our globally-social world.

The most popular social network today is Facebook (“Leading Social Networks Worldwide as of January 2016, Ranked by Number of Active Users [in millions]”) with approximately 1.59 billion active monthly users (“Number of Monthly Active Facebook Users Worldwide as of 4th Quarter 2015 [in millions]”). Facebook is a platform for users to create profiles for personal or business use in order to connect with others. Facebook also doubles as a publication platform, though Facebook would argue against this (Kiss and Arthur). Publishing is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as, “the act of making something publicly known” (“Publishing”). Users on Facebook create posts and share them with both strangers and friends, thus creating a public publishing platform. These posts and comments are as much a public form as blog posts or online fan fiction. It is documented proof of what has been said by whom; in fact, it is now possible to see the editing history on a single post or comment. Even if a post or comment is deleted, Facebook retains access to that content. Their Help Centre website states, “When you choose to delete something you shared on Facebook, we remove it from the site. Some of this information is permanently deleted from our servers; however, some things can only be deleted when you permanently delete your account.” Thus, content considered “deleted” exists past the time the creator removes it; it is still available to some, remaining “published” on Facebook’s servers.

Facebook is a platform where unique content is created in addition to a site where users “share” and “like” content they deem relevant. This can result in a lively discourse of back-and-forth commenting, especially with the new option for users to “reply” to previous comments. However, in order to find content that is in opposition to one’s currently held views, one must often purposely seek it out themselves. This is due to Facebook’s algorithms, largely invisible and secret to Facebook users. Facebook created algorithms that filter its seemingly-endless content into curated, personalized “news feeds” for its users. An algorithm, defined by the OED, is “a precisely defined set of mathematical or logical operations for the performance of a particular task” (“Algorithm”). As a business, Facebook succeeds in the task of retaining consumers; they are able to deliver an appropriate amount of content to their consumers. Where Facebook’s algorithms fail is in giving users unique content, not only based on their specific “likes” but on their broader general interests. Furthermore, they are unsuccessful at providing “readers” with interesting and challenging content that is oppositional to their currently held views. They are unable to show a snapshot of the multitude of voices that exist on this platform; instead, they proliferate a user’s preconceived views and reinforce a user’s confirmation bias. Ultimately, Facebook is a business. Their prediction algorithms that provide users with a personalized news feed are meant to generate a user-friendly experience; however, in doing this, computers become gatekeepers and users become confined to ideological bubbles.

During the Age of Enlightenment, the book trade and affordability of books allowed for the proliferation of new areas of thinking and novel philosophies. Censorship by the church and state was dying in favour of books that were engaged readers and inspired discussion and debate about their ideas. What made books and discourse interesting was not necessarily the sameness of opinion, but the diversity of opinions that were becoming louder during the eighteenth century. Facebook could have become a place of social diversity. Instead, its owners have engaged in gatekeeping and invisible editing in order to keep users returning to their site. This comes at the expense of social and intellectual growth and change. The people who manage Facebook’s algorithms generate many of them based on “likes,” hidden posts, and the amount of time spent reading an article. “[Chris] Cox [Facebook’s chief product officer] and the other humans behind Facebook’s news feed decided that their ultimate goal would be to show people all the posts that really matter to them and none of the ones that don’t,” states Will Oremus in “Who Controls Your Facebook Feed.” However, humans are not as predictable as mathematic equations; utilizing “likes” or time spent reading as a baseline of what is shown to people does not illustrate the whole complex picture of what human beings can, and should, engage in. In his TEDxTALK, Eli Pariser gives an example of algorithms attempting to understand a human being based on these baselines alone. He says that as a liberal, he engaged in more progressive content. However, he enjoys politics and likes reading about the conservative side of the political spectrum. He recognized he was engaging in right-wing content less often, but he was perceptive enough to notice when the conservative viewpoint disappeared from his feed, leaving only content from his liberal friends. Opposing content, though interesting and necessary for Pariser, was gone and he now had to seek it out. He had no active role in editing his news feed as content was disappearing, and neither do other users. Yet, most other users to not notice the content shift happening; instead, they see their own views proliferated. Previous to the Internet, the broadcast and print media were the gatekeepers of information. It is widely recognized that the media is fallible, but journalistic ethics existed in order to promote multiple perspectives. The Internet undermined this old media as it expanded. Huge companies, such as Facebook and Google, grew and computers have become the gatekeepers of information. Oremus states, “Facebook had become… the global newspaper of the 21st century: an up-to-the-minute feed of news, entertainment, and personal updates from friends and loved ones, automatically tailored to the specific interests of each individual user.” The idea of a platform presenting only one perspective to its readers without the availability of an opposing opinion at arm’s reach, as is the case with newspaper stands, is an archaic thought considering the movements that have been made to prevent censorship from occurring, especially in regards to the importance of social diversity. Oremus’ article is informative and supportive of algorithms, yet he still laments, “Drowned out were substance, nuance, sadness, and anything that provoked thought or emotions beyond a simple thumbs-up.” Ultimately, Pariser, in his TEDxTALK, recognizes the biggest issue at hand when computers control the information people see, and it is not always as simple as ideological bubbles. Ultimately, it extends into a dysfunctioning democracy, removed from a conducive and just flow of information. To have a strong conviction requires knowing and understanding all sides of an issue. As Katherine Phillips states, “We need diversity… if we are to change, grow, and innovate.” Facebook and Internet users cannot let website conglomerates be the only innovators, the only ones capable of seeing solutions from multiple angles, whether those problems involve an algorithm or differences in ideology, religion, or politics. Users cannot let computers be their personal gatekeepers, preventing them from understanding that there are other perspectives and that they are equally as valuable.

Ultimately, Facebook’s algorithms serve a vital purpose: a means of generating revenue, retaining users, and making sense of the expanse of information available on the web. However, these secret, invisible algorithms prevent Facebook’s users from being introduced to novel information or opposing viewpoints. This in turn prevents people from understanding global events, and instead creates ideological bubbles. Milan Zafirovski writes, “subjects were literally reduced to the servants of theology, religion, and church, thus subordinated and eventually sacrificed… to theocracy.” In this statement, he is referring to pre-Enlightened Europe. However, as people become more accustomed to seeing their own views proliferated on what many consider their main news source, they are becoming accepting of the idea that their view is the only one. As history shows, discourse and challenging opinions and ideas are what fuel social change. Ultimately, Facebook needs to sort through the massive amount of information on their site; however, they cannot be gatekeepers to distribute only information they deem as “important.” Facebook users need to have a voice in what is shown to them, and this needs to be bigger than a “thumbs up.”

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Streamlining Our Lives

“No moment in technology history has ever been more exciting or dangerous than now. The Internet is like a new computer running a flashy, exciting demo. We have been entranced by this demo for fifteen years. But now it is time to get to work, and make the Internet do what we want it to.” – David Gelernter, “Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously.” The Edge. (2010).

Continue reading “Streamlining Our Lives”