Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The short con is part of the long con

The growing consensus on how to counter social disruption is to rely on Google and Facebook to act as political censor. Once these companies do it in the US, most of the rest of the world will start to rely on them to calm political discussion as well.

Last week, Facebook issued a plea for its users to send in nude photos of themselves so it can train its artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. The social network hopes to pre-empt the use of “revenge porn,” in which pictures sent in confidence are publicly released on the internet to embarrass. Store the photos, train the AI, stop the posting of questionable images. Simple, really.

Except it’s not. The easy analysis is the cyber-security angle. The Russia-based cyber-security company Kaspersky was recently dumped as a contractor by the US government after allegations Russian intelligence was using the software as a portal to steal sensitive information on computers running the anti-virus, including US government machines.

This proves the old maxim: intelligence doesn’t care about who you are, intelligence only cares about your access. In that sense, Facebook is setting up the largest pool of personal data ever created by human systems. And yet even non-technical people who know nothing about cyber-weapons think this isn’t a smart idea. Everything gets hacked eventually.

Pushing down the analysis levels, consider that Facebook right now has 2 billion monthly users – or 70% of the 2.8 billion internet users living outside China and Russia. At present growth rates, the social network could boast 3.5 billion monthly users by 2025, or half the global population outside China and Russia.

That’s large enough to create a real-time census to “see” nearly everyone on the planet, even if they don’t have a Facebook account. It can track all people using triangulation and smartphone GPS data. Advertisers will love it. But the real question is whether “government” is a verb or a noun. Because if it’s the former, then Facebook’s censorship just got a whole lot more interesting.

The next layer strikes at the quiet default assumptions everyone seems to be aware of, but no one wants to talk about. Sure, it’s natural to feel bad about women being exploited online, but if sexually valuable women have been harassed since the time of universal mud huts and no has done anything substantial to stop it, why is this happening now? Why is Facebook shouldering this “social responsibility” in 2017?

Facebook knows women make up the majority of its users. Women do most of the clicking and get most of the clicks, especially if they're posting nudes. To Facebook, a 20-year-old, single mother, working multiple jobs with access to at least one smartphone is the ideal consumer and consumable. It's not about stopping online misogyny, it's about consumerism. The only encouragement is to “unplug” on the weekends, which means the default is plugged. Do you see?

Social networks are trying to be our friends because their business models rely on people failing to notice the reality staring at them from that glowing rectangular lie: if the service is free, then you are the product. Each “plugged” individual adds to the big data banks with every login attempt. Clickity-clack. Swipity-swipe. Doing our job on the cotton-fields of the 21st century without complaint.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ends with self-actualisation. Poor people (poor in wealth, not in time) love their smartphones. So while they fall off the first two tiers, social networking, like an opioid, provides costless and illusory self-actualisation, along with the trappings of power, freedom and community. In the paraphrased words of Marshall McLuhan, "there is no sweeter praise than the gaze of a tyrant, especially if it's in HD."

Maslow's hierarchy of needs
The gimmick of social networks isn’t the bright display of gorgeous photos, poignant posts and viral videos. It’s the neat little white line of possibility at the bottom of the screen. The not-yet-loaded. Down there, anything is possible. Everything is real. Facebook is not selling a product but its own authority to control the feeling of lack. Hence the most important result: nothing changes.

Human failure starts with self-deception, telling yourself lies to feel better. Eventually, we don't know or care what is real or what isn't. So while Facebook pretends to defend its users, Mark Zuckerberg champions the idea of a universal basic income. Productivity isn’t down, he says, humans are being extremely productive – they’re just not being paid for generating his data.

People intuitively understand that what they do online is valuable and they know the next step is to be paid for it. Big data instead pays us in “protection” from revenge porn, fake news and hate speech, while offering us the sustenance of illusory self-actualisation. Is this enough to keep the slaves from revolting? We’ll see. Even well-educated people will swallow untruth without too many questions if it’s plausible and reinforces their beliefs.

Ultimately, Facebook is committing Boromir’s mistake: power should not be wielded, it must be destroyed. Mass censorship of social networking is a bad idea. Invariably, this power will fall into the hands of people with which the creators vehemently disagree. Mr Zuckerberg has chosen to forget that online privacy and anonymity are the most important dynamics of this new digital space. If those pillars are removed, the online becomes just like the real – with nothing new under the sun.

If revenge porn is the wholesale leaking of sexual secrets, then its effect on traditional sexuality – good and bad – may serve as an analogy worth pondering here. What happens to geopolitics when the default assumption of activity is the voluntary, unpaid delivery of personal information to corporate entities with full power over how, when and for what this data will be used?

It turns out all media is state-run media, especially when it’s not.

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