The Trump campaign used data to target African Americans and young women with $150 million dollars of Facebook and Instagram advertisements in the final weeks of the election, quietly launching the most successful digital voter suppression operation in American history.
Let’s say you woke up this morning and after stopping your alarm clock, asked it to play some get-up-and-go music. You go to make breakfast and see that you’re out of butter, but it doesn’t matter, because a delivery is on its way. On your commute, you catch up with friends from back home. You turn to news across the Atlantic, read an interesting article on Trump. You go to a new spot for lunch and pay using your phone – and also for the train, and then for the last stretch, a cab. Once home, dinner is by app, and you settle down to watch the latest TV show, except, it’s not actually shown on a TV.
It’s possible that this entire day is delineated by a handful of technology companies. Google Home wakes you up in the morning and later, Google recommends a lunch spot – it even gives you live information on how busy it is. It is partly responsible for your cab home, as Google is an investor in Uber. You checked in with friends on Facebook on that morning commute (you might have also used the Facebook “check-in” feature at your lunch spot).
The Trump piece you read is courtesy of the Washington Post, owned by Jeff Bezos, the man behind Amazon. Amazon is also responsible for recognising that your fridge is out of butter, and the TV show you watch? Even if you are watching Netflix and not Amazon Prime, Netflix would not exist without Amazon, as Amazon owns the web cloud services its rival uses. With an 18% share of the smartphone market, it’s likely the apps you use are running on an iPhone. No? Well, maybe you have an Android device – owned by Google.
Cabal is not too strong a word. Take Amazon. It’s unfathomable, when you think about it. The idea of selling books online morphing into something that wants to get in your home and even the bottom drawer of your freezer, and – as we learned this week – live music events. You might think that tech companies are taking over the globe – until you realise that Google, or rather Google’s parent company Alphabet, has invested in a space exploratory arm, Space X. So not just the globe. (Amazon and Facebook have also dipped their toes into space.) Google’s latest mission, in fact, is taking on death itself. Why not?
Thing is, none of this might bother you. Why should it? All of these companies improve our lives, right? I’d go as far as to say Google has made me a smarter person. It’s perhaps made me a more intolerant person, because I believe there are very few gaps in knowledge that can’t be filled by an online search, and most of us, in developed countries at least, carry that ability in our pockets. It’s why I love the Let Me Google That For You website – in which askers of easily answerable questions are sent an automatic link that enters the question into Google, to shame their indolence.
It could be argued that tech has made us lazier, but I’d counter that it has only made us lazier in whichever area we tended to be lazy in already. I’m a bad cook, so apps such as Uber Eats or Deliveroo, on my Apple phone, have perhaps made me lazier, but if I was a better cook I might not use them. (And the tech, if I wasn’t as lazy, could help me get better at cooking.) But I’m not going to stop drawing by hand, something I enjoy, just because there’s an app I can do that on. It’s undeniable that tech has changed our lives fundamentally, but in often very good ways.
The problem is, a small group of companies ruling the world, just as with people, is not a good thing. This is why antitrust laws exist. It’s why Rupert Murdoch has suddenly started to clean up Fox and News UK, because he wants his BSkyB bid to go ahead, despite considerable concerns of a monopoly.
Recently there’s been speculation that Mark Zuckerberg might run for US office. I am not being hyperbolic when I say that it’s possible he would have less power if he was president than he does now. Facebook has 1.28 billion daily active users. Most individuals now get their news via the platform and, as was emphasised in the election of Donald Trump, this is problematic when there’s a lack of editorial control. Zuck at first tried to play down Facebook’s “fake news” influence, which was difficult when simultaneously boasting about his company’s influence on voter turnout and engagement.
And I’ll tell you something; there’s nothing more incensing than a dude bashing out a 5,000-word manifesto on how he wants to change the world having based some of his operations in offshore locations so he can avoid paying corporate taxes. Likewise, it is disingenuous at best and dictatorial at worst to say you want to help extend India’s internet access and then make Facebook one of few available websites.
And if you want to opt out? Well, it isn’t always that easy. Some of these companies make it difficult to cut ties entirely, hence concerns around data retention and individual rights. But the other point is that unilateral opting out might mean you end up living a somewhat ascetic life.
I quit Facebook in 2013, and as a direct result of this, I have fallen out of touch with many friends. People have had babies, people have got married and divorced and other people have died and I have been absolutely none the wiser, because I don’t keep up with Facebook. Sure, that’s my own fault, but I was tired of the banalities of the medium and the time it was taking up in my life, and the concern that Facebook was following me everywhere, like the eyes of an Old Master painting.
It is time now for two things: for people to wake up and realise how much our lives are dominated by such a small number of Silicon Valley bros, one hand in their jean pocket announcing their next move, and for tech companies to acknowledge their power and influence and become truly accountable. To pay their goddamn taxes. To actually do something about online abuse. To not take the piss out of consumers by releasing a $700 product and then tweaking it months later for greater profit. I don’t want to worry that the curating of Apple News is quasi-Pravda. Or that companies are making money from extremist content. And I understand that in so many “free” services we pay a different way, by becoming a product ourselves, and giving up some of of our privacy. That’s a trade that many of us are willing to make and will keep making, but up to a point. Up to a point.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010