Digital Democracy’s Road Ahead

Richard Hughes Gibson at the Hedgehog Review: “In the last decade of the twentieth century, as we’ve seen, Howard Rheingold and William J. Mitchell imagined the Web as an “electronic agora” where netizens would roam freely, mixing business, pleasure, and politics. Al Gore envisioned it as an “information superhighway” system for which any computer could offer an onramp. Our current condition, by contrast, has been likened to shuffling between “walled gardens,” each platform—be it Facebook, Apple, Amazon, or Google—being its own tightly controlled ecosystem. Yet even this metaphor is perhaps too benign. As the cultural critic Alan Jacobs has observed, “they are not gardens; they are walled industrial sites, within which users, for no financial compensation, produce data which the owners of the factories sift and then sell.”

Harvard Business School professor Shoshanna Zuboff has dubbed the business model underlying these factories “surveillance capitalism.” Surveillance capitalism works by collecting information about you (your Internet activity, call history, app usage, your voice, your location, even your fitness level), which creates profiles of what you like, where you go, who you know, and who you are. That shadowy portrait makes a powerful tool for predicting what kinds of products and services you might like to purchase, and other companies are happy to pay for such finely-tuned targeted advertising. (Facebook alone generated $69 billion in ad revenue last year.)

The information-gathering can’t ever stop, however; the business model depends on a steady supply of new user data to inform the next round of predictions. This “extraction imperative,” as Zuboff calls it, is inherently monopolistic, rival companies being both a threat that must be eliminated and a potential gold mine from which more user data can be extracted (see Facebook’s acquisitions of competitors Whatsapp and Instagram). Equally worryingly, the big tech companies have begun moving into other sectors of the economy, as seen, for example, in Google’s quiet entry last year into the medical records business (unbeknownst to the patients and physicians whose data was mined).

There is growing consensus among legal scholars and social scientists that these practices are hazardous to democracy. Commentators worry over the consequences of putting so much wealth in so few hands so quickly (Zuboff calls it a “new Gilded Age”). They note the number of tech executives who’ve gone on to high-ranking government posts and vice versa. They point to the fact that—contrary to Mark Zuckerberg’s 2010 declaration that privacy is no longer a “social norm”—users are indeed worried about privacy. Scholars note, furthermore, that these platforms are not a genuine reflection of public opinion, though they are often treated as such. Social media can operate as echo chambers, only showing you what people like you read, think, do. Paradoxically, they can also become pressure cookers. As is now widely documented, many algorithms reward—and thereby amplify—the most divisive and thus most attention-grabbing content. Keeping us dialed in—whether for the next round of affirmation or outrage—is essential to their success….(More)”.