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The Core Dilemma Of The Social Web, Today

John Naughton digs into the challenges of living in an open, liberal society when everything we do, say, or feel is being stolen by governments or monetized by the services that provide what we have come to consider our collective public space:

John Naughton, Here’s how data thieves have captured our lives on the internet

Some years ago, when writing a book on understanding the internet, I said that our networked future was bracketed by the dystopian nightmares of two old-Etonian novelists, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Orwell thought we would be destroyed by the things we fear, while Huxley thought that we would be controlled by the things that delight us. What Snowden has taught us is that the two extremes have converged: the NSA and its franchises are doing the Orwellian bit, while Google, Facebook and co are attending to the Huxleyean side of things.

In The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, his magisterial history of the main communications technologies of the 20th century – telephone, radio, movies and television – the legal scholar Timothy Wu discerned a pattern.

Each technology started out as magnificently open, chaotic, collaborative, creative, exuberant and experimental, but in the end all were “captured” by charismatic entrepreneurs who went on to build huge industrial empires on the back of this capture. This is what has become known as the Wu cycle – “a typical progression of information technologies: from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel – from open to closed system”.

The big question, Wu asked, was whether the internet would be any different? Ten years ago, I would have answered: “Yes.” Having digested Snowden’s revelations, I am less sure, because one of the things he has demonstrated is the extent to which the NSA has suborned the internet companies which have captured the online activities of billions of internet users. It has done this via demands authorised by the secret foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court, but kept secret from the companies’ users; and by tapping into the communications that flow between the companies’ server farms across the world.


The internet companies offered us shiny new “free” services in return for our acceptance of click-wrap “agreements” which allow them to do anything they damn well please with our data and content. And we fell for it. We built the padded cells in which we now gambol and which the NSA bugs at its leisure. - John Naughton


The reason this made sense is because so much of our communications and data are now entrusted to these internet giants. Tapping into them must have seemed a no-brainer to the NSA. After all, Google and Facebook are essentially in the same business as the agency. Its mission – comprehensive surveillance – also happens to be their business model.

The only difference is that whereas the spooks have to jump through some modest legal hoops to inspect our content, the companies get to read it neat. And the great irony is that this has been made possible because of our gullibility. The internet companies offered us shiny new “free” services in return for our acceptance of click-wrap “agreements” which allow them to do anything they damn well please with our data and content. And we fell for it. We built the padded cells in which we now gambol and which the NSA bugs at its leisure.


This is the central dilemma of the social web. If we are to connect with others, we need to share our emotions, habits of mind, heart, and body, and through this sharing we can attract those that we wish to connect with, and they reciprocate. However, those providing the services through which our sociality is mediated access the catalog of what we read and gaze upon, our yearnings, actions, and our dark desires. They tap that emotional flow like a Swiss bank account, and drain it to pay for the servers, fiber, and acqui-hires behind it all. - Stowe Boyd


In our rush for “free” services, we failed to notice how we were being conned. The deal, as presented to us in the End User Licence Agreement, was this: you exchange some of your privacy (in the form of personal information) for the wonderful free services that we (Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype, etc) provide in return. The implication is that privacy is a transactional good – something that you own and that can be traded. But, in these contexts, privacy is an environmental good, not a transactional one. Why? Because when I use, say, Gmail, then I’m not only surrendering my privacy to Google, but the privacy of everyone who writes to me at my Gmail address. They may not have consented to this deal, but their email is being read by Google nonetheless. And before any lawyer (or Sir Malcolm Rifkind) pops up to object that having machines read one’s communications is not the same thing as having a human being do it, let me gently inquire if they are up to speed on machine-learning algorithms? The fact that Mark Zuckerberg is not sitting there sucking his pencil and reading your status updates doesn’t mean that his algorithms aren’t making pretty astute inferences from those same updates – which is why Facebook probably knows that two people are going to have an affair before they do; or why one can make interesting inferences about the nature of a couple’s marriage from inspection of their network graphs.

And this is where the interests of the NSA and the big internet companies converge. For what they have both managed to do is to abolish the practice of anonymous reading which, in the good old analogue days, we regarded as an essential condition for an open, democratic society. In a networked world, the spooks and the companies know everything 
you read, and the companies even know how long you spent on a particular page. And if you don’t think that’s creepy then you haven’t been paying attention.

This is the central dilemma of the social web. If we are to connect with others, we need to share our emotions, habits of mind, heart, and body, and through this sharing we can attract those that we wish to connect with, and they reciprocate. However, those providing the services through which our sociality is mediated access the catalog of what we read and gaze upon, our yearnings, actions, and our dark desires. They tap that emotional flow like a Swiss bank account, and drain it to pay for the servers, fiber, and acqui-hires behind it all. Because everything is a market, and there is always a way to make a market on human desire and our need to find out who we are — and what it all means — through connection with others.

This is a dilemma, however, not some problem that can be solved, like a jigsaw puzzle. A radical curtailing of how Google, Facebook, and Twitter access and analyze our social exhaust may lead to the death of how social works. I fear that like Rilke feared treatment for his schizophrenia:

If you rid me of my demons, my angels might take flight, too. 

With one major exception: we can certainly force our governments to end their headlong quest to create a global surveillance state in the name of the endless war on those opposed to open, liberal societies. (Which means we would wind up where we are: at war with ourselves.)

If we each personally want to trade privacy for connection, to opt to live in a new world dominated by radical openness, a state of publicy, well, that’s our choice. If you dislike how Facebook defines its rights, drop the service (I don’t use it). But, as I said, that’s a choice: to live with the dilemma — inside the dilemma — and extract from it as much (or more!) than it demands from us in exchange.

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