Shoshana Zuboff book

A new book explores the risks of allowing tech companies too deeply into our lives.

We’ve left Halloween behind and we’re not yet to Thanksgiving; but, lo and behold, I saw my first (albeit artificial) Christmas tree in a living room this past weekend. Yes, we’re entering that big shopping (and eating) season. And, if you’re anything like me, you may be tempted more and more to buy things online. It’s just so darn convenient.

One of my friends recently ordered a bed and frame from Amazon, with free delivery. The bed turned up at her door in two days and — boom! — when the grandparents arrived, all was in order.

However, aside from not supporting our local businesses, there is a hidden danger to online shopping and most other digital activities. So, dear readers, stick with me here while I shiver ye timbers with what some very smart folks are discovering about our digital age.

Disruptive innovation

Happily, I don’t have a television, but at a friend’s house last week I saw a terrifying Frontline episode on Artificial Intelligence (AI). (See the full show here: https://tinyurl.com/yyqptk79.)

First, a little history. The Industrial Revolution was the last time, before recently, that a dramatically new innovation — the steam engine — catalyzed societal disruption so completely. Whole job categories disappeared. Cars replaced horses and all the attending jobs (and Henry Ford created the assembly line); mechanized looms and textile machinery took away the jobs of hand weavers (hence the Luddite Movement, a group who took to the moors at night to destroy those new machines); eventually new materials like plastic became favored; and on and on. You get the picture.

Now we’ve got the Digital Age that has once again upturned the apple cart in even more pervasive ways. One of the thought leaders analyzing these trends, Shoshana Zuboff (Professor Emerita, Harvard Business School) has labeled this the era of “Surveillance Capitalism” — meaning, in short, that the details of our lives are products to be bought and sold. The internet revolution has provided lots of benefits, certainly, but the really scary parts have been mostly hidden, until recently, and need considerable attention.

Google

When Google, Facebook, Amazon and other major digital businesses began, they really had no idea how to make money. They all just jumped onto the internet because it was buzzing — put up a website, sell books, sell cars, sell toothbrushes, start a search engine, spread the news online instead of on newsprint, whatever. Let’s just follow one of those threads.

Google started in 1996 and was first called Backrub (leave it to college students!) until it changed its name — a misspelling of googol, the name for the number one followed by 100 zeroes. In 1998 the search company secured some major funding from other wealthy tech backers (Jeff Bezos among them). By 1999 Google founders were getting pressure to actually make money so they quietly dropped their initial motto — “Do no evil” — and their promise not to commercialize the internet. By 1999 they had started selling our private information to advertisers without letting any of us know what they were doing. They had hit on a new business model that actually made a profit.

How did they stumble onto this, you might ask? Most manufacturing processes produce a generally unusable by-product — a waste product that initially appears to have no value and, in most cases, is costly to get rid of. Think of manure from large scale beef feed lots, for example; or the tailings from mining; or slag from smelting factories, etc. (It’s only recently that smart businesses have begun to find alternative uses, and markets, for byproducts.)

Digital exhaust

In the case of Google, they realized that they had “digital exhaust” — their name for a trail of information that all of our individual computers were leaving when we used their search engine. When the founders were up against a wall with their new investors — as in “You guys need to start making money!” — they realized this digital exhaust was a gold mine for advertisers.

Our online searches created a profile of who we were, what products we needed, how often, and when. It was the beginning of the end of digital privacy. And it wasn’t until much later in the game that Google actually admitted exactly what it was doing — gathering and selling our private information.

Facebook ratcheted up the ante considerably when we all began offering up more intimate details about who we are, what politics we lean to, who our friends are, what bands we like, our daily activities, and the ultimate: photos of ourselves. And we’re all still voluntarily posting this personal information online — lambs to the slaughter!

Alexa, Google Home, Echo

Now not only are we giving away our private information, we have invited digital spies into our homes, even our bedrooms. (You see where this is going, I hope.) The GPS systems on our phones capture where we are, where we’re going, and where we’ve been. (And you’ll find that other applications on your phone use this location data unless you go to the trouble of turning it off.)

Those tantalizing surveys on Facebook that people “like” and post around? (What states have you visited? What is your favorite concert? How will you look at 80?) — all of them are simply means to collect more data on you.

Frontline, in chilling detail, documents how our private data is being used against us. The ultimate example is surely how data capture is being used in China where the government has created a “Social Credit System” (SCS) meant to indicate each citizen’s adherence to Chinese law, their social reputation, and compliance to the government’s ideological framework. People are rewarded or punished according to their scores.

China has installed millions of video cameras, starting in areas where the government wants to monitor its minorities, the weigers or Uyghurs. (This population has Turkish roots and most are practicing Muslims, so they have a cultural heritage at odds with the majority of Chinese.) In one Frontline segment, live cameras in China identified citizens crossing a street: each face was identified with a name and tagged with this social credit score (among other data points). One video showed a camera inside a grocery store: a young woman put a particular product in her cart and her SCS number went up a few points. This score can determine if you get a job or are allowed to travel.

Also, a friend who recently returned from China confirmed that there’s no cash used there now. All urban citizens purchase items with their phones — so every purchase is monitored and recorded.

Big Brother is digital

And now we have Alexa and her ilk. One Frontline AI expert explained that these “digital helpers” can monitor the tone of your voice or whether you sneeze often, perhaps prompting advertisers to offer you a anti-depression drug or something for a cold. (I want to say again that digital and AI technology has many benefits, but every new technology also has a dark side. One digital entrepreneur Kai-fu Lee has admitted that AI will probably mean we lose 50 percent of jobs currently filled by humans — truck drivers may be the first to go as self-driving vehicles proliferate.)

So what can we do about digital surveillance? First, be aware. Check the location monitoring features and other data gathering aspects on your cell phones. As for me, I’d say dump your Alexa-spy device. If you must use Facebook, be alert to surveys that are only meant to collect information about you. And, we must demand more transparency from technology companies. (Recently California passed the California Consumer Privacy Act that puts strict consumer privacy guidelines in place. More info here: https://tinyurl.com/yex4s5nb)

And if you must shop online for the coming holidays, be aware that you’re giving away more than money.

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