Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Social Media Surveillance: We Are Not The Helpless Victims Of a Cackling Villain

Cartoon of Wendy Cockcroft under surveillance
I often get into debates with ethical designer and thinker Aral Balkan. This is mostly due to the fact that he has a rather Marxist outlook while I'm basically conservative. That's where the clash is. Today's debate needs scrutiny: we either are or are not the helpless victim of the Hooded Claw Silicon Valley. I say no.

Surveillance capitalism exists


That surveillance capitalism exists is not at issue, it's actually true. We are the product. It's a trade-off: we get free stuff, i.e. the ability to communicate with our family and friends without paying for the privilege, which the social media platform we're using uses the information supplied to them by your chatter to serve you with ads. Sometimes we forget the few things you need to keep in mind when using a social media platform:

  1. Their e-roof, their rules, as annoying and arbitrary as they can be sometimes
  2. No one owes you a platform
  3. Sharing your data with third parties means they decide who they share it with
  4. Only put information out there that you want shared with the world and his dog
  5. Be aware of the prurient, censoriousness of ISPs given the right-wing bent of our corporate overlords
  6. You don't think your private online conversations are private, do you? Oh, dear.

It's a trade-off


Social media usage is a trade-off of your privacy V utility and convenience. There's no point in whingeing about how mean old Silicon Valley (it's not a gestalt entity, now settle down) is conspiring to milk you like a cow because your spending habits, etc., are making them rich, I tell you. Rich! Rich! Rich!


This is where I took issue with Aral. He's exaggerating. Don't like social media? Don't use it. He's right that other options are available but the conversation never got to the ethical social media platform he believes is the cat's pajamas. It's not going to: "Startups bad. They're like the monster beneath your bed, only more bite-y." I'm not even joking, in this hour-plus rant he has a go at "Silicon Valley and startups" as if they are the embodiment of all evil and characterises social media data scraping as a form of slavery. I'm not even joking, watch the video:



The alternative?


The logical response is, of course, to go ahead and build that ethical social media platform including the infrastructure, etc. Oh, yeah, it isn't going to build itself so how do we fund it? There's your problem. Tech bod Brennan Benkert puts my argument in a nutshell:


As long as we the people continue to go along with it, surveillance capitalism will continue. The red apple held forth by the wizened old crone is very shiny, after all. And it looks soooo good to eat. Have a bite, dearie.

The market will fix it


I am not a fan of Socialism despite my sympathies with many socialist positions. This is because they seem to believe they can control both ends of the market. You can't. You can impose regulations to make a business hard to conduct but since the internet has no borders good luck with that. Surveillance capitalism is a demand-side issue. As long as people want to give their data away in a narcissistic desire to say "Sidney was 'ere" online, the situation will continue. We can regulate what the social media service providers can do with our data but it's really up to us to not give it away in the first place. If we really want an ethical social media platform, someone is going to have to jolly well build one. Then they've got to work out how to fund and maintain it. I'm not suggesting for a moment that data-farming is the only way to make it pay for itself, but if it doesn't pay for itself it won't compete effectively against the incumbents. The only way to beat the incumbents is to be better than they are. I want to see that happen. It can. Where there's a will, there's a way.

If you build it, who will come?


My argument is basically "We have agency." To suggest otherwise is ludicrous. We are not the helpless victims of Mark Zuckerberg, et al. We are what we choose to be and if we choose to go on social media we need to accept the trade-off until a platform is built that doesn't make such demands of us. Okay, who's going to build it? Any takers? Idealism won't make it happen, programming will. I'd be very interested to see someone have a go at creating an ethical social media platform. If anyone does, please let me know. I'll definitely try it out.

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