The Social Web: A Glorious Dystopia

24th July, 2015 — Laura Kalbag

Women types all her personal information into computer saying “Of course, I expect all of this to remain strictly private!”

This week we’re going to dive straight into the activities of those cheeky corporations. There’s so much to share!

Corporate Surveillance

In the tech industry, we often make jokes about sci-fi premonitions. We make jokes that MPs would better understand the consequences of their actions if they watched more sci-fi. But this week, 23andme showed that a Gattaca-like future is possible…

23andme, the DNA database

23andme does genetic testing based on saliva samples. For a one-off low fee, they’ll tell you about your DNA traits and risk factors, as well as your DNA ancestry. The US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has actually ordered 23andme to stop marketing their personal genome service, as they had “not obtained the legally required regulatory approval resulting in concerns about the potential consequences of customers receiving inaccurate health results.” But 23andme still has a lot of genetic information in their database, that’s also accessible via their API.

This week a developer used 23andme’s API to create a screening mechanism called “Genetic Access Control” which allows websites to block access to people based on their race, sex, and ancestry. 23andme swiftly blocked the programmer’s access, but it shows the dangers of personal data being kept in a centralised location — especially when access is granted to third parties.

Google wants to search your real-world experiences

Well, 23andme covers what the body is, and now Google wants to capture what the body does. In a patent awarded this week, Google outlined a method for recording video using a wearable like Google Glass that can be searched at a later date. As Mike Murphy says:

“It could essentially turn everyone wearing Glass into a walking CCTV camera. Orwell would be rolling in his grave at that prospect.”

From creepy to downright dangerous: Facebook

Ray Filar has written an insightful article into how Facebook’s “real name” policy isn’t just discriminatory, but could even be dangerous:

“When Facebook decides you aren’t using your “real” name, it doesn’t just take away years worth of memories, conversations and photos, it also acts as a doxxing tool. Out yourself or we’ll delete your account. The idea that peoples’ ’real’ names are their legal names is untrue for exactly the people who are put most at risk by the policy.”

Ray explains how Facebook’s “real name” policy is transparently used for advertising. “Real names” make you easier to track across multiple corporate and government databases. The idea of a fixed “real name” originates from the state’s need to track debt and control borders. However, the reality is that names are inexorably connected to our identities, our pasts and our presents, and our “real names” aren’t necessarily those that represent right now.

Twitter, happy to censor

Yet again, Turkey has succeeded in censoring tweets with the help of Twitter. After the suicide bombing in Suruc, Turkish citizens were critical of the Turkish government for not doing more to prevent the attack. The Turkish government, keen to prevent its citizens using Twitter to call for protests, blocked access until 107 images of the bombing’s aftermath were removed by Twitter.

It’s not surprising that Twitter complied with the censorship, its financial interests are more important to them than 107 images. But it’s also in the nature of centralised platforms, such as Twitter, to be able to be censored. Once posted, content is no longer in control of the individual, but instead subject to the control of the platform.

The Turkish Sanliurfa 2nd Penal Court of Peace lifted the ban on Wednesday afternoon.

The Panopticon

Thomas McMullan has looked at the Panopticon metaphor used for government and corporate surveillance. Is the continual capture of our data is actually anything like Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon? The Panopticon is a structure where cells, inhabited by monitored people (prisoners, workers, children…,) are watched from a central point. The Panopticon was designed to adjust the behaviour of the monitored people, because they know they’re being watched. But we’ve only been aware of the extent of government surveillance since the Snowden revelations. Thomas points out that digital surveillance doesn’t give you the feeling of people watched as much as the Panopticon, or CCTV. And the general population aren’t aware of the extent of corporate surveillance. Heralded by more internet-connected devices, Thomas says:

“There may not be a central tower, but there will be communicating sensors in our most intimate objects.”

Aral talks about how we’re still heading towards a Panopticon in his blog post and talk, The Camera Panopticon. We may not be experiencing the “chilling effects” right now, as we’re largely unaware of the extent of corporate data collection analysis. But if we ever do find out, it may well be too late.

You are the product…

In his talks, Aral also speaks about how you are the product. The internet adage of “if you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold” has been around for a long time, but often it’s said without much thought to the implications of the individuals being the product.

In The Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey nails it, pointing out that we’re not just the product, we’re also actively working for free:

“What do you call a multimillion-dollar, for-profit company that’s run in large part by unpaid or underpaid grunt laborers? A century ago, you might’ve dubbed it robber-barony or sharecropping — if not, you know, outright slavery.

In 2015, though, we call it the social Web: a glorious dystopia where everybody works for likes — as in, ‘for free’ — while a handful of tech tycoons profit.”

Caitlin reminds us that, whilst Reddit that has been in the news recently when its moderators revolted, it’s not only Reddit who rely on unpaid labour. “[T]hat’s basically the elevator pitch of every major Internet institution, from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to Wikipedia.”

The unpaid labour has an effect on the types of communities these places become. It’s been posited that so many of these communities are riddled with trolls because the only people who can afford to give their time for “affective currency” are those, who “(a) have money from other sources or (b) are overwhelmingly compelled by motivations like power, popularity or revenge.” (Largely young white men.)


Paul Mason’s article on the end of capitalism on the Guardian also talks about the affective currency, and the role of technology in postcapitalism:

“…markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies – the giant tech companies – on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.”

Paul goes on to talk about how postcapitalism could be enabled by the paths forged by technology today: network technology, collaborative production, and the sharing economy (the real one). The information age in which we live has given us a new driving force behind democracy, as it’s far harder to silence and shut down the “educated and connected human being.” But information isn’t truly free:

“Most laws concerning information define the right of corporations to hoard it and the right of states to access it, irrespective of the human rights of citizens.”

He talks about how we mustn’t be distracted by trying to fight and defend old ideals, but instead focus on creating new alternatives. We’re being held back by old models:

“The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information; and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy: between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next.”

I want to read Paul’s book, Postcapitalism, when it’s published next week. If you have any other reading recommendations, please send me a tweet or drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you!