So far in the series of The Attention Economy: “Reader’s Attention Is Put To Test“, “Our Young Hero Accidentally Creates Its Own Nemesis“; and in the last part, “Person Trips And Get Stuck In The Trap“. What will happen next?
Before continuing, please consider the following three, seemingly unrelated questions. First: “Should free labor be legal?” Second: “Is it okay to steal candy from children?” Third: “When does manipulation become abusive?”
It is a matter of subjectivity to find answers to all of these questions. No answers are more correct than others. But my guess is that somewhat, your ethical and moral compass tends to deem all the actions involved in the questions above to be somehow problematic. At least, that is what my compass tells me.
What if I then told you the following: right now, in your everyday life – you are exposed to all three of these ethically questionable acts. You are doing free labor. Someone is swindling your candy. You are being manipulated. But do not be afraid, you are not alone. I am a victim too. Actually, people all over the world. To try to explain how that is possible, I will first present to you, three essential historical events.
Yes, I know – EU did definitely not exist in the 1500s. As you can see, history is not my major. However, if we assume the EU did exist, I can make my point without having to unintentionally infringe any specific nation. If you are at any rate as knowledgeable as me in history (which does not seem to be the biggest of achievements) – I will assume that you are aware of Europe’s colonization of the world, back in the days. They sailed across the oceans and wherever and whenever they appeared, it meant slavery or exploitation for the local populations. The Europeans forced the locals to do hard labor in exchange for pretty much, nothing. While the locals shed blood sweat and tears (and much worse) out on the fields – the Europeans enjoyed the fruits of that exploited labor.
When I first said Essential historical events, maybe this was not what you expected. Still, this event is of utter importance. Poor little child (which somehow looks very similar to Johan). He is so happy with his pretty little penny. But little does he know that his extra grandiose deluxe lollipop is actually worth significantly more than a tiny penny; more than a hundred. The shady man in snot colored coat is dabbing his way to a life of luxury by selling (stolen?) lollipops?
Today, all across the globe; people spend an incredible amount of time online. Videos are being watched, posts shared, likes given, accounts followed – lives lived. I am sure most of you are absolutely aware of this already. But something less known is what happens on the other side of our screens. Behind the curtains of our screens, there is a whole market place. But not for us to buy – for us to be sold. This marketplace is like a big auction hall where our personal data is being sold to the highest bidder. And when I say personal data, I do not mean your social security number, your name and address, or your private messages. The data that interests the companies are not those concrete pieces of information that we intuitively think of as personal data.
Your personal diary is for sale
When we are on our devices, we leave small footprints wherever we go and whatever we do: where we click, what we like, who we follow, which posts or videos we watch, how long we watch, when we log in, which times we are most active, which geographical places we visit… And the list can go on forever. The point is, when all of these seemingly useless footprints are stacked and combined, they become something extremely powerful. Through these footprints, our behavior is learned, and personal lives mapped – it is like our personal diaries are being served on a silver plate to the highest paying company. To demonstrate how extremely accurate these diaries are, I will give you an example. There has been quite some buzz about whether our phones are in secret listening to us. For instance: if you one day, have a conversation about buying pets, the next day, ads about pet toys might show up on your feed. But the truth is, they do not even need to secretly listen through the mics of our phones. By simply using these footprints, it is possible to map and predict our behavior in such detail – they already knew that you might be considering buying a pet…
So, with our diaries in hand, the companies can choose whoever fits their product or business the most, and specifically target that person; exactly the way we would use price-runner or similar service to find which TV or mobile phone that would fit us the best.
We already learned history is not my hidden ace. But something that I did learn about the human past is: whatever happens, it always comes back – however, it might be in new shapes and forms. So, what is the relation between these three historical events? And furthermore, how can these historical events connect the three unrelated questions I earlier stated?
What if I claimed that today, 2020, is actually a phase in a currently ongoing colonization, not too different from the one Europe did in the past. But this time, it is the population all around the globe who are the victims. Furthermore, manipulative methods and deception are in play.
Let us start with stealing sweets from children (because that is obviously the most unethical of acts). What is it that the green shady man does, that makes the act feel unethical? Baby Johan undoubtedly seems extremely happy with his little penny. If he is happy, it should be ethical, right? I do not know what you think, but to me, it does not feel ethical. One important point is missing. The deal was on uneven terms. In my opinion, the fact that baby Johan is unaware of the true market value of that lollipop makes the act feel unfair from a third-person perspective. In a similar way, that is how our deal is working with the tech companies. We are not aware of the true value of the data which we hand the companies for using their services and platforms. While we watch cute cat videos, Google and Facebook are raking billions after billions of dollars, and grow more powerful than we can imagine – by taking advantage of that same data. Note that I do not, by any means imply that we do not get any value from watching cute cats, using geo-locations, or following each other on Instagram. It is just that the deal is not on equal terms since we lack essential knowledge and information.
What about manipulation then? How can I be manipulated when I am in charge of my own decisions? I am well educated, they cannot control me; it is only those other fools who are being manipulated. A mindset like that is a very good indicator showing that you, unfortunately, are a victim. But, being manipulated does absolutely not make you an incompetent human being. I personally admit I am being manipulated. Every single day. For instance: There are an uncountable amount of times I have ended up – watching Youtube clips, or browsing Instagram like a zombie – until the middle of the night. I did it although what I really wanted was to get a good night’s sleep to get up early in the morning, and do something productive. We human beings, like all other living creatures, are biologically programmed to react on our environment. It was essential for our survival. But today, our environment does not look like anything we were originally built to live in. The environment today is artificial and – it is molded by technology. And as earlier mentioned, our personal diaries are out there – in the hands of those in control of the technology. In such a position, there is no match to manipulate any human being. It is like playing a game of poker, but the opponent can predict all your moves since they can see your cards and bribe the dealer.
In conclusion, back then it was Europe who forced the locals to do free labor while the Europeans got all the wealth and power. Today, it is the tech companies on top of the global population. But the difference is, today we are not physically forced into doing the free labor. Instead, we are being deceived and manipulated. We practically do it voluntarily.
In other words, history repeats, this time: The world is conquered by stealing sweets from children.
So What’s The Gist!?
It is always easy to look back and see how the course of history turned out. However, perceiving the current time, and imagining the future is much harder. But history tends to repeat. Right now, we are again in the midst of world colonization. People all over the world are doing (almost) free labor to mine data, which is the most valuable resource of our time. But the ones who feast on the wealth of the data and grows in power, are the big tech companies. Though, this must not be bad per se. However, it contributes to a perilous loop in which everyone is victims of manipulation: the tech giants grow stronger, controls our environment, and have access to everyone’s personal diaries. In this position, they can continuously develop more efficient methods to enslave us – incentivize us with values and alignments that only maximize growth and do not strive for optimal human well being. Always one step ahead. No one is immune. No matter if you are aware or not. No matter if you want it or not…
NOTE: My point is not that Facebook or any other big company is evil and we should take them down. They just do whatever is best from their point of view (to maximize profit). It happens to turn out like this because the rules of the games allow such. However, the rules are at the bottom created by us, the people. But soon, that might no longer be the case, if this course of direction continues (see our previous post: The Beast Is Born).
SECOND NOTE: It might be nothing wrong with any of this – if this is the direction we want. But if not, we need to start thinking: which direction do we want, and what can we do to change the direction? Because no matter what, a direction will be chosen, so why not make sure the path ahead of us is working with us instead of against us.
Written By: Anton
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This Gist was mainly inspired by thoughts from the books: Homo Deus and 21 Lessons For The 21st Century. Both written by: Yuval Noah Harari – Professor of history at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He is a great thinker of our time who tries to understand the world from different lenses. The analogy of the colonization is inspired from him.