Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is a chilling exposé of the business model that underpins the digital world. Observer tech columnist John Naughton explains the importance of Zuboff’s work and asks the author 10 key questions
If you can’t read Zuboff’s new book in full, this article/interview may convince you that you should anyway. It may be one of the most important things you read all year.
Even for the people who are steeped in some of the ideas of surveillance capitalism, ad tech, and dark patterns, there’s a lot here to still be surprised about. If you’re on social media, this should be required listening/watching.
I can’t wait to get the copy of her book.
Folks in the IndieWeb movement have begun to fix portions of the problem, but Shoshana Zuboff indicates that there are several additional levels of humane understanding that will need to be bridged to make sure their efforts aren’t just in vain. We’ll likely need to do more than just own our own data, but we’ll need to go a step or two further as well.
The thing I was shocked to not hear in this interview (and which may not be in the book either) is something that I think has been generally left unmentioned with respect to Facebook and elections and election tampering (29:18). Zuboff and Laporte discuss Facebook’s experiments in influencing people to vote in several tests for which they published academic papers. Even with the rumors that Mark Zuckerberg was eyeing a potential presidential run in 2020 with his trip across America and meeting people of all walks of life, no one floated the general idea that as the CEO of Facebook, he might use what they learned in those social experiments to help get himself (or even someone else) elected by sending social signals to certain communities to prevent them from voting while sending other signals to other communities to encourage them to vote. The research indicates that in a very divided political climate that with the right sorts of voting data, it wouldn’t take a whole lot of work for Facebook to help effectuate a landslide victory for particular candidates or even entire political parties!! And of course because of the distributed nature of such an attack on democracy, Facebook’s black box algorithms, and the subtlety of the experiments, it would be incredibly hard to prove that such a thing was even done.
I like her broad concept (around 43:00) where she discusses the idea of how people tend to frame new situations using pre-existing experience and that this may not always be the most useful thing to do for what can be complex ideas that don’t or won’t necessarily play out the same way given the potential massive shifts in paradigms.
Also of great interest is the idea of instrumentarianism as opposed to the older ideas of totalitarianism. (43:49) Totalitarian leaders used to rule by fear and intimidation and now big data stores can potentially create these same types of dynamics, but without the need for the fear and intimidation by more subtly influencing particular groups of people. When combined with the ideas behind “swarming” phenomenon or Mark Granovetter’s ideas of threshold reactions in psychology, only a very small number of people may need to be influenced digitally to create drastic outcomes. I don’t recall the reference specifically, but I recall a paper about the mathematics with respect to creating ethnic neighborhoods that only about 17% of people needed to be racists and move out of a neighborhood to begin to create ethnic homogeneity and drastically less diversity within a community.
Also tangentially touched on here, but not discussed directly, I can’t help but think that all of this data with some useful complexity theory might actually go a long way toward better defining (and being able to actually control) Adam Smith’s economic “invisible hand.”
There’s just so much to consider here that it’s going to take several revisits to the ideas and some additional research to tease this all apart.
Foreign companies will no longer be allowed to sell products from their own affiliated companies in India
NEW DELHI—India is tightening restrictions on foreign e-commerce companies operating in the country, a new challenge to Amazon.com Inc. and Walmart Inc. as they bet billions on the nascent market.
Current rules forbid non-Indian online sellers from holding their own inventory and shipping it out to consumers, as is typically done in other countries. Instead, they have found a work-around by operating as online marketplaces and selling what are effectively their own products held by their affiliated local companies.
They will no longer be allowed to sell such goods, a division of India’s Commerce and Industry Ministry said in a statement Wednesday, an apparent attempt to close that loophole.
The new rules, which take effect Feb. 1, also bar foreign companies from entering into exclusive agreements with sellers. Amazon, for example, has in the past been the exclusive third-party online retailer to sell smartphones from the popular Chinese smartphone brand OnePlus.
Abneesh Roy, an analyst at Edelweiss Securities, noted that ahead of elections set for early next year, the government could be moving to appease owners of smaller shops that have been hit as customers buy more goods online.
“Shopkeepers have been unhappy,” he said. “In an election year, the government will definitely listen more to voters.” ❧
It’s nice to see foreign countries looking at what has happened to coutries like America with the rise of things like e-commerce, actually thinking about them and the longer term implications, and making rules to effect the potential outcomes.
Now the bigger follow up question is: is this a good thing? Perhaps there won’t be the community interruption we’ve seen in the US, but what do the overall effects look like decades hence? From a community perspective, from a competitive perspective?
With the rise of online retailers like Amazon, consumers’ expectations about the speed of delivery have been transformed. But at what cost?
Syndicated copies to:
The Amazon app gave me a useful enough notification that I was able to walk outside and pick up my package at the street just as it was delivered. How convenient for both me and the driver who didn’t even have to get out of the vehicle.
Artificial Intelligence in 21st Century Education
13:00 – 14:15
Probe 3: How might an ethically and morally-informed AI be conceived in a culturally diverse global context? How might we realize a more equitably-designed, developed and deployed AI in light of the rate and range of disruption some have forecast as inevitable?
Panel: Abhishek Gupta, Nevena Francetic, Stephen Downes and video clips of Timnit Gebru & Rediet Abebe
Facilitator: Tylor Burrows
Has the Everything Store become a dangerous monopoly threatening the U.S. economy?
Some time later this year, Amazon could become the first trillion-dollar company in American history. Its valuation has already doubled in the last 14 months to about $800 billion, and Jeff Bezos, its founder and CEO, is officially the richest man on the planet.
There are ways in which Amazon seems to be the greatest company in American history. It’s revolutionized the global shopping experience and expanded into media and hardware, while operating on razor-thin margins that have astonished critics. But some now consider it the modern incarnation of a railroad monopoly, a logistics behemoth using its scale to destroy competition.
So what is Amazon: brilliant, dangerous, or both? That’s the subject of the latest episode of Crazy/Genius, our new podcast on technology and culture.
To build the case for breaking up the Everything Store, I talk to Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU and an outspoken critic of big tech, and Lina Khan, a researcher at the Open Markets Institute and a leading expert on antitrust policy. Both of them encourage me to see how a company famous for low prices can still behave in an anticompetitive manner. Making the case against heavy regulation for Amazon are Rob Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech think tank, and Michael Mandel, an economist with the Progressive Policy Institute who researches technology and e-commerce. Both encourage me to focus not only on the hidden costs of Amazon’s largeness, but also on the hidden benefits.
How online shopping and cheap prices are turning Americans into hoarders
The irony of reading this given the material I’ve been reading about materialism and minimalism lately. I think that just today I threw out about 50 pounds of old junk I didn’t need and have piles of old, well-used things that have gone past their useful lives to me.
People keep fettering while I’m always unfettering….
The company’s rate discounts have pushed up utility costs for everyone else.
I’ve been thinking a while about government-related corporate handouts like the one described in this article. It’s sad that mega-corporations can use their power, money, and influence to squeeze out large marginal gains for themselves at the cost of the everyday person. Amazon should not only get preferential treatment like this, but should potentially be paying in more. If they’re really as great as they say, their marginal savings and sales to such a broad customer base should pay for these benefits on the front sales side instead of hidden within their back end.
Just as people are woefully inept at mentally handling probability theory in their daily lives, they’re also apparently horrifically terrible at handling marginal costs for things and where the flows of those streams end up. Governments shouldn’t be forced to compete against themselves to benefit the Amazons of the world.
In cases like this, the marginal cost to power consumers gets passed along by state governments which don’t have much if any transparency. The average consumer sees a small rise in their bill over time and doesn’t think too much of it while potentially millions or hundreds of millions are siphoned off of society and are lining the pockets of the already ultra-rich.
I’m reminded of the scheme proposed by Richard Pryor’s character in the movie Superman III or by the group of programmers in Mike Judge’s Office Space. In small bank transactions, just round off fractions of a penny in one way or another to benefit yourself and dump it into a side account. It’s all so small, no one will notice. Except that in aggregate, it is noticeable–eventually. Our representative government shouldn’t be involved in these sorts of transactions, or if they are they should be working in the opposite direction.
It’s one thing if we decide as a government that there should be universal health care and the tax base for it is spread out equally and equitably. And by this I don’t mean allowing loopholes and tax dodges like the recent one mentioned in which Betsy DeVos registers her mega-yacht overseas as a means of dodging not only taxes, but also in paying her crew less, which is yet another form of this type of scheme in which small perks are created for the already privileged.
Another example of this type of issue is the recent Trump tax cuts. The complexity of the system makes it very near to opaque and the long term effects aren’t realized soon enough to catch the cheat. It’s now been long enough since they were enacted that the effect on the overall economy has been generally gauged as minimal and the general populace hasn’t benefited much in comparison to the ultra-rich which have benefitted incredibly handsomely.
I’m curious if there’s a word or phrase that is generally used to describe this sort of system to cheat the broader populace while benefiting a privileged class? If not, I’m going to suggest marginal theft.
We live in a country where billionaires make the decision to pay their workers less than minimum wage & then when they donate the most infinitesimal amount of their relative wealth to a decent cause they get buildings named after them & endlessly praised.
It’s all so backwards.
— Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) June 18, 2018
Michael Lewis is leaving Vanity Fair, where he's been a contributing writer for a decade, and moving to Audible. It's the latest sign that audiobooks have become a creative medium in their own right rather than just an appendage of print. https://t.co/1OWtCSLF01