Reality Ain’t What It Used To Be

Bill in sunglasses, with Blade Runner imagery photoshopped in the lenses

In his remarkable essay ‘The Last Days of Reality’ [] Mark Pesce surveys the ways Facebook exerts its influence on our lives, reviews the impact of machine learning technologies on the analysis of the personal data we all leak into the datasphere, and channels his inner Huxley to conclude that:

the future of power looks like an endless series of amusing cat videos, a universe cleverly edited by profiling, machine learning, targeting and augmented reality, fashioning a particular world view in which we will all comfortably rest”. Forget the boot, stamping on the face of the opppressed – Facebook will bring our slippers and pipes so we can sit comfortably by the fire, with no desire the challenge the authoritarian orthodoxies of our rulers.

It’s worth reading the whole thing, because it’s a long and insightful work that draws a line from the promise of the early web as a peer-to-peer communications system, through the algorithmic oppression of an online service dedicated to getting, holding, and brokering attention, to the needs of surveillance capitalism, the use of machine learning to build simulations of each user able to shape their feeds for maximum stickiness, and the moves towards an augmented reality where the real world will be overpainted with sound and image designed to serve the interests of the commercial firms and state actors who control it.

Add in the proposals for a ‘Social Credit System’ on the Chinese model, so you are only exposed to influences from those members of your social graph who have state approval – and you have a perfect world for those who value conformity and commerce over everything else.

It surely can’t be long before Facebook rebrands as Soma and we’re all assigned an α, β, or – for those of us who don’t get with the programme – an ε alongside our profiles.

And this matters, because Facebook in particular has become the online commons, or at least the dominant part of it. As Mark says:

Facebook has become so central to twenty-first-century social discourse that it has become the de facto commons. The collision between public speech and private ownership means that Facebook has the capacity (and arguably, the legal right) to censor any speech it deems offensive. If you don’t like it, Facebook implicitly says, you are free to go elsewhere. But there is no longer an elsewhere. The internet and Facebook have become synonymous in the minds and browsing habits of billions.

In 2003 I wrote a column for the BBC News website following Google’s acquisition of the Blogger publishing platform in which I argued that “the time has come to recognise this dominant search engine for what it is – a public utility that must be regulated in the public interest’, noting that “the argument about keeping away from regulating the internet and the web has always been that the technology is not mature enough or important enough to merit government interference. Surely, with more than half of UK adults using the net we have reached the point where this argument no longer applies.” []

What was true of Google fifteen years ago is even truer now, but there is another need – to acknowledge the importance of the the social networks that now shape our experiences and viewpoints so much, whose power seems likely only to grow as they deploy machine learning, augmented reality and other technologies in service of their profits and the approval of those state actors who take an interest in their activities.

Controlling the great social networks may seem unimaginable, but breaking up Standard Oil or AT&T was unthinkable at one point and the US political system managed it. However it seems unlikely the the current US administration would have any interest in doing so.

The alternative, it seems to me, will be that one or more of the big Chinese social networks, already carefully engineered to offer its users a space for engagement that is deemed ‘safe’ by the government, will move into the space created by Facebook and Twitter’s inability to protect their users from abuse, offence, stalking, harrassment or grooming – and that the features that so appeal to the Chinese government will be welcomed by those of other countries who want to be able to watch and control what their citizens do online in these febrile times.

My view remains that  we should instead look to the European Union as a source of the sort of regulatory pressure that could at least enforce more transparency and openness, and perhaps open up a space within which an organisation with a remit to serve the public interest could offer a viable alternative to wholly-commercial or state-sanctioned offerings.  It’s something I’ve been arguing for a while now.