When tech giants such as Google and Uber hide their wealth from taxation, they make it harder for us to use technology to improve services
Saturday 30 January 201619.03 EST
To understand why we see so few genuine alternatives to US technology giants, it’s instructive to compare the fate of a company like Uber – valued at more than $62.5bn (£44bn) – and that of Kutsuplus, an innovative Finnish startup forced to shut down late last year.
Kutsuplus’s aspiration was to be the Uber of public transport: it operated a network of minibuses that would pick up and drop passengers anywhere in Helsinki, with smartphones, algorithms and the cloud deployed to maximise efficiency, cut costs and provide a slick public service. Being a spinoff of a local university that operated on a shoestring budget, Kutsuplus did not have rich venture capitalists behind it. This, perhaps, is what contributed to its demise: the local transport authority found it too expensive, despite impressive year-on-year growth of 60%.
On the other hand, “expensive” is everything that Uber is not. While you might be tempted to ascribe the low costs of the service to its ingenuity and global scale – is it the Walmart of transport? – its affordability has a more banal provenance: sitting on tons of investor cash, Uber can afford to burn billions in order to knock out any competitors, be they old-school taxi companies or startups like Kutsuplus.
A recent article in The Information, a tech news site, suggests that during the first three quarters of 2015 Uber lost $1.7bn while booking $1.2bn in revenue. The company has so much money that, in at least some North American locations, it has been offering rides at rates so low that they didn’t even cover the combined cost of fuel and vehicle depreciation.
Uber’s game plan is simple: it wants to drive the rates so low as to increase demand – by luring some of the customers who would otherwise have used their own car or public transport. And to do that, it is willing to burn a lot of cash, while rapidly expanding into adjacent industries, from food to package delivery.
An obvious but rarely asked question is: whose cash is Uber burning? With investors like Google, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Goldman Sachs behind it, Uber is a perfect example of a company whose global expansion has been facilitated by the inability of governments to tax profits made by hi-tech and financial giants.
To put it bluntly: the reason why Uber has so much cash is because, well, governments no longer do. Instead, this money is parked in the offshore accounts of Silicon Valley and Wall Street firms. Look at Apple, which has recently announced that it sits on $200bn of potentially taxable overseas cash, or Facebook, which has just posted record profits of $3.69bn for 2015.
Some of these firms do choose to share their largesse with governments – both Apple and Google have agreed to pay tax bills far smaller than what they owe, in Italy and the UK respectively – but such moves aim at legitimising the questionable tax arrangements they have been using rather than paying their fair share.
Compare this with the dire state of affairs in which most governments and city administrations find themselves today. Starved of tax revenue, they often make things worse by committing themselves to the worst of austerity politics, shrinking the budgets dedicated to infrastructure, innovation, or creating alternatives to the rapacious “platform capitalism” of Silicon Valley.
Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that promising services like Kutsuplus have to shut down: cut from the seemingly endless cash supply of Google and Goldman Sachs, Uber would have gone under as well. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Finland is one of the more religious advocates of austerity in Europe; having let Nokia go under, the country has now missed another chance.
Let us not be naive: Wall Street and Silicon Valley won’t subsidise transport for ever. While the prospect of using advertising to underwrite the costs of an Uber trip is still very remote, the only way for these firms to recoup their investments is by squeezing even more cash or productivity out of Uber drivers or by eventually – once all their competitors are out – raising the costs of the trip.
Both of these options spell trouble. Uber is already taking higher percentages from its drivers’ fares (this number is reported to have gone up from 20% to 30%), while also trying to pass on more costs related to background checks and safety education directly to its drivers (through the so-called safe rides fee).
The only choice here is between more precarity for drivers and more precarity for passengers, who will have to accept higher rates, with or without controversial practices like surge pricing (prices go up when demand is high).
Moreover, the company is actively trying to solidify its status as a default platform for transport. During the recent squabbles in France – where taxi drivers have been rioting to get the government to notice their plight – Uber has offered to open up its platforms to any professional taxi drivers who would like a second job.
Needless to say, such platforms – with properly administered and transparent payment, reputation and pricing systems – ought to have been established by cities a long time ago. This, along with the encouragement and support of startups like Kutsuplus, would have been the right regulatory response to Uber.
Unfortunately, there’s very little policy innovation in this space and the main response to Uber so far has come from other Uber-like companies unhappy with its dominance. Thus, India’s Ola, China’s Didi Kuaidi, US-based Lyft and Malaysia’s GrabTaxi have formed an alliance, allowing customers to book cabs from each other’s apps in countries where they operate. This falls short of creating a viable support system where innovators like Kutsuplus can flourish; replacing Uber with Lyft won’t solve the problem, as it pursues the same aggressive model.
The broader lesson here is that a country’s technology policy is directly dependent on its economic policy; one cannot flourish without the active support of the other. Decades of a rather lax attitude on taxation combined with strict adherence to the austerity agenda have eaten up the public resources available for experimenting with different modes of providing services like transport.
This has left tax-shrinking companies and venture capitalists – who view everyday life as an ideal playing ground for predatory entrepreneurship – as the only viable sources of support for such projects. Not surprisingly, so many of them start like Kutsuplus only to end up like Uber: such are the structural constraints of working with investors who expect exorbitant returns on their investments.
Finding and funding projects that would not have such constraints would not in itself be so hard; what will be hard, especially given the current economic climate, is finding the cash to invest in them.
Taxation seems the only way forward – alas, many governments do not have the courage to ask what is due to them; the compromise between Google and HM Treasury is a case in point.
Police have found a new way to legally incorporate surveillance and profiling into everyday life. Just when you thought we were making progress raising awareness surrounding police brutality, we have something new to contend with. The Police Threat Score isn’t calculated by a racist police officer or a barrel-rolling cop who thinks he’s on a TV drama; it’s a computer algorithm that steals your data and calculates your likelihood of risk and threat for the fuzz.
Beware is the new stats-bank that helps officers analyze “billions of data points, including arrest reports, property records, commercial databases, deep Web searches and…social-media postings” to ultimately come up with a score that indicates a person’s potential for violence, according to a Washington Post story. No word yet on whether this meta data includes photos and facial recognition software. For example would an ordinary person, yet to commit a crime, be flagged when seen wearing a hoodie in a gated Florida community?
The company tries to paint itself as a savior to first responders, claiming they want to help them “understand the nature of the environment they may encounter during the window of a 911 event.” Think of it like someone pulling your credit score when you apply for a job. Except, in this instance you never applied for the job and they’re pulling your credit score anyway because they knew you might apply. It’s that level of creepiness.
Remember the 2002 Tom Cruise movie Minority Report? It’s set in 2054, a futuristic world where the “pre-crime” unit arrests people based on a group of psychics who can see crimes before they happen. Only, it’s 2016 and we’re not using psychics, we’re using computers that mine data. According to the Post piece, law enforcement in Oregon are under federal investigation for using software to monitor Black Lives Matter hashtags after uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson. How is this new software any different? In fact, this is the same kind of technology the NSA has been using since 9/11 to monitor online activities of suspected terrorists—they’re just bringing it down to the local level.
According to FatalEncounters.org, a site that tracks deaths by cop, there were only 14 days in 2015 in which a law enforcement officer did not kill someone. So, leaving judgment up to the individual hasn’t been all that effective in policing. But is letting a machine do it any better? Using these factors to calculate a color-coded threat level doesn’t seem entirely practical. Suppose a person doesn’t use social media or own a house but was once arrested when he was 17 for possession of marijuana. The absence of data might lend itself to a high threat level. The same can be said for online meta data that might filter in extracurricular interests. Could a person who is interested in kinky activity in the bedroom be tagged as having a tendency toward violence?
The Fresno, Calif. police department is taking on the daunting task of being the first to test the software in the field. Understandably, the city council and citizens voiced their skepticism at a meeting. “One council member referred to a local media report saying that a woman’s threat level was elevated because she was tweeting about a card game titled ‘Rage,’ which could be a keyword in Beware’s assessment of social media,” the Post reported.
While you might now be rethinking playing that Mafia game on Facebook, it isn’t just your personal name that can raise a flag. Fresno Councilman Clinton Olivier, a libertarian-leaning Republican, asked for his name to be run through the system. He came up as a “green” which indicates he’s safe. When they ran his address, however, it popped up as “yellow” meaning the officer should beware and be prepared for a potentially dangerous situation. How could this be? Well, the councilman didn’t always live in this house; someone else lived there before him and that person was likely responsible for raising the threat score.
Think what a disastrous situation that could be. A mother of a toddler could move into a new home with her family, not knowing that the house was once the location of an abusive patriarch. The American Medical Association has calculated that as many as 1 in 3 women will be impacted by domestic violence in their lifetimes, so it isn’t an unreasonable hypothetical. One day the child eats one of those detergent pods and suddenly the toddler isn’t breathing. Hysterial, the mother calls 911, screaming. She can’t articulate what has happened, only that her baby is hurt. Dispatch sends an ambulance, but the address is flagged as “red” for its prior decade of domestic violence calls. First responders don’t know someone new has moved in. The woman is giving CPR while her husband waits at the door for the ambulance. What happens when the police arrive?
It’s a scenario that can be applied to just about any family and any situation. Moving into an apartment that previously was a marijuana grow-house; buying a house that once belonged to a woman who shot her husband when she found him with his mistress in the pool. Domestic violence calls are among the most dangerous for police officers. Giving police additional suspicion that may not be entirely accurate probably won’t reduce the incidents of of accidental shootings or police brutality.
The worst part, however, is that none of these questions and concerns can be answered, because Intrado, the company that makes Beware, doesn’t reveal how its algorithm works. Chances are slim that they ever will, since it would also be revealed to its competitors. There’s no way of knowing the accuracy level of the data set given in the search. Police are given red, yellow or green to help them make a life-changing or life-ending decision. It seems a little primitive, not to mention intrusive.
“It is deeply disturbing that local law enforcement agencies are unleashing the sophisticated tools of a surveillance state on the public with little, if any, oversight or accountability,” Ryan Kiesel of the Oklahoma ACLU told me. “We are in the middle of a consequential moment in which the government is unilaterally changing the power dynamic between themselves and the people they serve. If we are going to preserve the fundamental right of privacy, it is imperative that we demand these decisions are made as the result of a transparent and informed public debate.”
While mass shootings are on the rise, violent crime and homicides have fallen to historic lows. You wouldn’t know that watching the evening news, however. Is now really the time to increase the chances of violent actions at the hands of the police, all while intruding on our civil liberties under the guise of safety?
White House officials met with Silicon Valley executives Friday to discuss the US government’s expanding efforts to monitor and intervene in online social media and other forms of internet communication.
The meeting, held in San Jose, California, featured high-level figures from Silicon Valley, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, and a government delegation led by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, NSA Director Michael Rogers and FBI Director James Comey.
According to an official statement issued by the White House, the purpose of the meetings was to “work together to combat terrorism and counter violent extremism online.”
During the tech summit, the White House delegation circulated proposals calling for tech firms to develop tools to “measure radicalization” levels among different populations, and to enable more effective dissemination of government-produced anti-terrorist media, documents acquired and published by The Intercept on Friday show.
Also on Friday, with the closed-door discussions still in progress, the White House announced new programs against “violent extremism” in the United States, including the establishment of a new Countering Violent Extremism task force, to be formed jointly by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice.
The new CVE task force, based out of DHS facilities, will seek to “integrate and harmonize” the operations of “dozens of federal and local agencies,” according to unnamed US officials cited by the Washington Post. The newly formed DHS-led task force will “coordinate all of the government’s domestic counter-radicalization efforts,” according to the US officials who spoke to the Post.
The State Department will also create a new Global Engagement Center to coordinate US government social media work internationally, a White House statement said.
Friday’s high-profile Silicon Valley summit and the announcement of the new counterterror programs have confirmed that the Obama administration will make use of its final year in power to further entrench and expand the surveillance apparatus.
The Obama administration aims to spend 2016 “overhauling its propaganda war against the Islamic State,” the Washington Post reported Thursday, in an article based on leaks from unnamed, high-level US government sources.
New spy programs launched by the administration will seek to collect and analyze data from social media networks and develop covert operations that allow the government to use the networks for its own counter-radicalization schemes, the US officials said.
The Obama White House has already overseen the development of a raft of police-state measures in the name of fighting “violent extremism,” hosting two major international conferences last year as part of efforts to coordinate surveillance projects among the various imperialist powers.
As early as 2012, the US government began seeking private contractors to conduct surveillance and analysis of social media data on behalf of the agency, through which the bureau could “develop pattern of life matrices” to enable law enforcement agencies to automatically identify likely “radicals.”
Recent months have seen growing clamor by the American state against encryption technology, as FBI Director James Comey has staged numerous public appearances to demand that the US government be given unlimited “back door” access to all encryption systems used by US communications firms.
The US political and media establishments have sought to justify this agenda by lamenting the limitations of previous social media surveillance efforts, endlessly repeating claims—without any factual basis—that the attacks in San Bernardino and elsewhere could have been stopped through preemptive screening of social media profiles for signs of extremism.
A growing stream of reports from elite universities and US government agencies warn—again without any evidence—that the Internet is enabling mass conversions of US residents into violent terrorists. Media reports this week highlighted one recent contribution, ludicrously titled “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa,” published in December 2015 by George Washington University’s “Program on Extremism.”
In the period since the exposure by NSA contractor Edward Snowden of massive US government spying on the Internet, many Silicon Valley firms have sought to pose as defenders of privacy against government overreach, although they have cooperated extensively with the government’s surveillance operations for years.
The communications firms are mainly concerned to protect the illusion of independence from the government, rather than to actually protect the privacy of their users, as comments by an unnamed Silicon Valley official reported by the Washington Post on Friday made clear. “Being seen as having the US government force our hands makes others around the world lose confidence in us,” an unnamed Silicon Valley official told the newspaper.
Friday’s meeting, with its lineup of virtually every top US official overseeing counterterrorism and surveillance, demonstrates that the US ruling elite is seeking nothing less than to subject the entire world communications system to unlimited scrutiny by US security and intelligence agencies.
Whether or not the leading tech companies will sign on to the specific initiatives being put forward by the White House Friday remains unclear. Nonetheless, as revelations from Snowden have conclusively shown, all the major communications providers have collaborated to varying degrees with the illegal mass spying operations erected by the US government since 9/11.
The events of the past decade-and-a-half have made clear that the entire corporate and political establishment favors an agenda of police-state spying on the American population.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, AT&T allowed the CIA and NSA continuous direct access to the company’s servers via special rooms installed inside the corporation’s headquarters.
The NSA has enjoyed virtually unfettered access to the servers of major Internet and telephone providers for years as part of secret deals negotiated in connection with the agency’s PRISM program. Since 2007, the US government has successfully recruited Microsoft, Google, Facebook, YouTube, AOL, Skype and Apple as participants in PRISM, giving the NSA complete access to all live communications hosted on the corporate servers, including email, video and voice calls, chats and file exchanges, along with unlimited access to their data archives.
Terrified by the Snowden exposures, the US government has increasingly turned these methods on its own employees, who are now among the most heavily surveilled groups on the planet. As part of the Pentagon-led “Insider Threat Program,” at least 100,000 US government employees have been targeted by highly intrusive electronic surveillance, a 2015 Congressional report secured in December by a Freedom of Information Act request revealed.
Obscured by the rancor of the school reform debate is this fact: Socio-economic status is the most relevant determinant of student success in school.
It is not a coincidence that the so-called decline of the American public school system has coincided with the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, the wealth disparity between upper-income and middle-income families is at a record high. Upper-income families are nearly seven times wealthier than middle-income ones, compared to 3.4 times richer in 1983. Upper-income family wealth is nearly 70 times that of the country’s lower-income families, also the widest wealth gap between these families in 30 years.
As the income disparity has increased, so has the educational achievement gap. According to Sean F. Reardon, professor of education and sociology at Stanford University, the gap for children from high- and low-income families is at an all-time high—roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier. With 22 percent of children in the U.S. living in poverty, this country’s 27th-place PISA ranking—the worldwide study that measures K-12 academic performance—simply cannot be compared to a country like Finland, which ranks 12th and, at 5.3 percent, has the second-lowest child poverty rate in the world.
So, why are wealthy school reform funders so squarely focused on identifying teachers and their unions as the cause of public education’s decline and advancing charter schools as the best solution?
Charter schools will never be the answer to improving education for all. It is simply not scaleable. And yet titans of industry such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton family, and billionaires such as John Paulson who earlier this year gave $8.5 million to New York’s Success Academy charter school system, are pouring their millions into support for charter schools—millions that will not, incidentally, be invested in improving the schools that the vast majority of U.S. students attend: traditional public schools.
Can it be a coincidence that those who have benefited most from the last 50 years of steadily increasing income inequality—the top 10 percent–support an education solution that hinges on denigrating public school teachers, dismantling unions and denying that income inequality is the underlying condition at the root of the problem?
The most generous explanation for this phenomenon says that the wealthiest among us are motivated to support charter schools purely out of ideology. They are operating under deeply held beliefs that a school system run by the government smothers innovation and that teachers unions inhibit a free market system that, if allowed to operate, would result in better teachers and child outcomes. In addition, these philanthropists believe that public education has become so hidebound that meaningful change within the system is no longer possible, and that fresh ideas and programs not beholden to a system that resists change will provide programs and ideas that are more effective.
Another explanation that has been posited is that good, old-fashioned greed is at the root. After all, the wealthy did not achieve their wealth through an indifference to achieving a return on their investments—and our public school system is a $621 billion per year endeavor. For example, a recent investigation by the Arizona Republic found that the state’s charter schools purchased a variety of goods and services from the companies of its own board members or administrators. In fact, the paper found at least 17 such contracts or arrangements totaling more than $70 million over five years.
In addition, there are specific tax loopholes that make it especially attractive to donate to charter schools. Banks and equity and hedge funds that invest in charter schools in underserved areas can take advantage of a tax credit. They are permitted to combine this tax credit with other tax breaks while they also collect interest on any money they lend out. According to analysts, the credit allows them to double the money they invested in seven years.
Another explanation suggests a darker motivation. The wealthy’s focus on charter schools is a strategy to weaken unions, one of the few reliable Democratic voting blocs that remain. It is also a convenient way to deflect from the fact that they have benefited most from income inequality and that their business practices—such as moving manufacturing jobs overseas and reducing their tax burden by taking advantage of offshore tax havens—have been among the causes of income inequality and the accompanying erosion of the middle class.
So, if you are a philanthropist from the tech or finance sectors and your goal is truly to fix education in this country, you would do well to apply your generosity, innovative spirit and funds toward addressing the problem of income inequality. Your wealth and position as prominent business leaders put you in a particularly influential position to help close the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Rebuilding the middle class—not expanding charter schools—is the most effective path to increasing access to quality education and to giving more students the opportunity to achieve their dreams.
Gary M. Sasso, Ph.D., is the dean of the College of Education at Lehigh University.
As a professor of literature, rhetoric, and writing at the University of California at Irvine, I’ve discovered that one of the biggest lies about American culture (propagated even by college students) is that Americans don’t read.
The truth is that most of us read continuously in a perpetual stream of incestuous words, but instead of reading novels, book reviews, or newspapers like we used to in the ancien régime, we now read text messages, social media, and bite-sized entries about our protean cultural history on Wikipedia.
In the great epistemic galaxy of words, we have become both reading junkies and also professional text skimmers. Reading has become a clumsy science, which is why we keep fudging the lab results. But in diagnosing our own textual attention deficit disorder (ADD), who can blame us for skimming? We’re inundated by so much opinion posing as information, much of it the same material with permutating and exponential commentary. Skimming is practically a defense mechanism against the avalanche of info-opinion that has collectively hijacked narrative, reportage, and good analysis.
We now skim everything it seems to find evidence for our own belief system. We read to comment on reality (Read: to prove our own belief system). Reading has become a relentless exercise in self-validation, which is why we get impatient when writers don’t come out and simply tell us what they’re arguing. Which reminds me: What the hell am I arguing? With the advent of microblogging platforms, Twitter activism, self-publishing companies, professional trolling, everyone has a microphone now and yet no one actually listens to each other any more. And this is literally because we’re too busy reading. And when we leave comments on an online article, it’s usually an argument we already agree with or one we completely reject before we’ve read the first paragraph. In the age of hyper-information, it’s practically impossible not to be blinded by our own confirmation bias. It’s hard not to be infatuated with Twitter shitstorms either, especially when we’re not the target practice.
E-novels, once the theater of the mind for experimental writers, are now mainstream things that look like long-winded websites. Their chapters bleed into the same cultural space on our screen as grocery lists, weather forecasts, calendar reminders, and email messages. What’s the real difference between reading a blog post online by an eloquent blowhard and reading one chapter of a Jonathan Franzen novel? We can literally swipe from one text to another on our Kindle without realizing we changed platforms. What’s the real difference between skimming an informed political critique on a political junkie Tumblr account and reading a focused tirade on the Washington Post’s blog written by putative experts?
What’s the real difference between skimming an informed political critique on a political junkie Tumblr account and reading a focused tirade on the Washington Post’s blog written by putative experts?
That same blog post will get reposted on other news sites and the same news article will get reposted on other blogs interchangeably. Content—whether thought-provoking, regurgitated, or analytically superficial, impeccably-researched, politically doctrinaire, or grammatically atrocious—now occupies the same cultural space, the same screen space, and the same mental space in the public imagination. After awhile, we just stop keeping track of what’s legitimately good because it takes too much energy to separate the crème from the foam.
As NPR digitizes itself in the 21st century, buries the “R” in its name, and translates its obsolete podcasts into online news features, every one of its articles now bleeds with its comment section, much of it written by posters who haven’t even read the article in question—essentially erasing the dividing lines between expert, echo chamber, and dilettante, journalist, hack, and self-promoter, reportage, character assassination, and mob frenzy.
One silver lining is that the technological democratization of social media has effectively deconstructed the one-sided power of the Big Bad Media in general and influential writing in particular, which in theory makes this era freer and more decentralized than ever. One downside to technological democratization is that it hasn’t lead to a thriving marketplace of ideas, but a greater retreat into the Platonic cave of self-identification with the shadow world. We have never needed a safer and quieter place to collect our thoughts from the collective din of couch quarterbacking than we do now, which is why it’s so easy to preemptively categorize the articles we read before we actually read them to save ourselves the heartache and the controversy.
The abundance of texts in this zeitgeist creates a tunnel effect of amnesia. We now have access to so much information that we actually forget the specific nuances of what we read, where we read them, and who wrote them. We forget what’s available all the time because we live in an age of hyperabundant textuality. Now, when we’re lost, we’re just one click away from the answer. Even the line separating what we know and what we don’t know is blurry.
We now have access to so much information that we actually forget the specific nuances of what we read, where we read them, and who wrote them.
It is precisely because we now consume writing from the moment we wake until the moment we crash—most of it mundane, redundant, speculative, badly researched, partisan, and emojian—that we no longer have the same appetite (or time) for literary fiction, serious think pieces, or top-shelf journalism anymore, even though they’re all readily available. If an article on the Daily Dot shows up on page 3 of a Google search, it might as well not exist at all. The New York Timesarticle we half-read on our iPhone while standing up in the Los Angeles Metro ends up blurring with the 500 modified retweets about that same article on Twitter. Authors aren’t privileged anymore because everyone writes commentary somewhere and everyone’s commentary shows up some place. Only the platform and the means of production have changed.
Someday, the Centers for Disease Control will create a whole new branch of research dedicated to studying the infectious disease of cultural memes. Our continuous consumption of text is intricately linked to our continuous forgetting, our continuous reinfection, and our continuous thumbs up/thumbs down approach to reality, which is why we keep reading late into the night, looking for the next place to leave a comment someone has already made somewhere. Whether we like it or not, we’re all victims and perpetrators of this commentary fractal. There seems to be no way out except deeper inside the sinkhole or to go cold turkey from the sound of our own voices.
Donald Trump, the sustainability of the KKK, Occupy anything, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Holocaust deniers, Climate Change doubters and everyone wearing man buns all share one insidious commonality: Facebook.
More specifically, they have in common the unnatural effects of rabid fans chattering on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, and hundreds more services that allow us to censor the information we allow into our smartphone windows on the world.
The self-sustaining buzz creates a lot of noise, but in a small group, allowing something that maybe isn’t always good for our culture to incubate, grow and eventually, to hatch.
Orwell got it wrong in 1984. Bradbury got it wrong in Fahrenheit 451. It won’t be a totalitarian regime that gives us a dystopian society.
It will be ourselves.
Facebook and other crack-like addictions are engineered to let us self-censor our perspectives, affecting how we view our neighbors, teachers, co-workers, and even our children, our understanding of geopolitical challenges, and our very understanding of ourselves.
What do you share? What do you read?
These networks create insulated, closed-minded communities that only read and share one perspective, repeated, parroted, memed, and repeated.
It’s peer pressure, writ large.
If you’re uncomfortable with this indictment of our ubiquitous behavior, I’ll cut to the point right now:
If you make one New Year’s resolution, make it this. Follow a new blogger or news outlet with which you disagree.
More on this at the end of the article. First, some perspective on just how often we’re consulting our circle of friends.
These shared “news items” are how the entire Internet learned about the blue and black (or was it white and gold) dress back in February.
It’s how this month, 119,997 people shared a fake Facebook post about a burned dog that actually had a piece of ham on its face. Pray for this poor burned dog. 1 share – 10 prayers. And they believed the hamdog was truly horribly disfigured. Until someone pointed out it was ham.
Meanwhile, hundreds of children, adults and the elderly were killed, or worse–raped then killed– last year in South Sudan and no one talked about it. The story, still on SFGATE has 0 comments as of this moment. Maybe that will change.
We follow only those we like or agree with. And that’s what we read. Then the algorithm serves us more of those posts.
And when something we dislike somehow manages to sneak past those software gates, we can instantly block that person or source forever, report it, or hide the post. Done. No more of disagreeable ideas. Just more of people agreeing with us.
And the way things go viral is when they’re so innocuous and so UNIMPORTANT that our right wing and left wing friends can talk about them with equal ignorance or wisdom, and we allow them through the filters. They make it to our feeds not because they’re important but because they’re inane.
And the important things going on? We don’t even know they exist.
Consider all the fuming people, rending their garments to say the media never covered all those terrorist attacks on non-whites before the Paris attacks. Many people got worked up, shaming the media about not covering the 147 killed in Kenya by gunmen. Then the media fought back.
We simply posted the links to our stories and said, as San Francisco Chronicle editor in chief Audrey Cooper wrote on Facebook, “Don’t mistake reading your FB feed for being an active consumer of smart news.” Then she posted this article that explains it best.
Narrow mindedness is now normal mindedness.
I’m an anachronism. I do something every day without fail. Something 70% of people my age do not do. (I’m 41). I read a daily paper. Cover to cover, at least the headlines.
The numbers of us reading a daily newspaper has been plummeting since the rise of social media in 2008.
The reason I do it is because I want to see the broad perspective on all the news. I know (personally) the vast team of editors, writers, layout staff, and the copy desk have meticulously gone over every part of this to make sure it’s an accurate reflection of what happened in the world and in the Bay Area during that 24 hour period.
The other alternative is also dying: the evening newscast. Along with it, balanced reporting
Fox News is rising, with an unapologetic bias. I’m fine with the existence of the network. I’m just not fine that those who follow Fox News don’t hear any other opinions because they no longer read the paper, or watch the objective newscasts from ABC, CBS, and NBC that are broadcast for free to everyone.
Cable can narrowcast. The Internet can microcast. But now, anyone and everyone can broadcast something that will reach the entire world with their often un-researched and unconfirmed and unchecked views.
It’s how we can deny climate change because our feeds are cleansed of any points we disagreed with.
And Donald Trump’s “brilliant ideas” are lauded among his fervent followers while the context of his embarrassing, imbecilic, childlike rants are suppressed by the same algorithms. The right get righter and the left get lefter. And in the middle, the informed, the open-minded, and the intelligent get angrier. Or give up.
The tyranny of personalization that leads to self-directed mind control, groupthink and xenophobia
A group that wants to win your hearts and minds doesn’t need to burn the books. How quaint was that. We stopped reading them long ago. These overlords merely need to create great memes, preferably with cats and clever white block, sanserif text.
The only solution I see to the homogenization of ideas in our culture? We must purposefully subscribe to Facebook feeds with which we disagree.
If you make one New Year’s resolution, make it this. Follow someone or preferably some media source with whom you disagree.
• If you want it lighter, and you’re an evangelical Christian who doesn’t believe evolution had anything to do with anything, follow IFLScience. (Warning, expletive).
• If you’re an atheist who thinks all Christians are naive hypocrites, follow Fr. James Martin.
And please, comment on this post.
Tell me how crazy I am. Tell me what an idiot I am. Tell me where I got a fact wrong, or missed some perspective, or am a crazy conservative or whackjob liberal. Talk about this post. Because that will make more people read it, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll seek other perspectives before making the important decisions that happen in the ballot box, and not in the Facebook feeds.
Hossein Derakhshan was imprisoned by the regime for his blogging. On his release, he found the internet stripped of its power to change the world and instead serving up a stream of pointless social trivia
Late in 2014, I was abruptly pardoned and freed from Evin prison in northern Tehran. In November 2008, I had been sentenced to nearly 20 years in jail, mostly over my web activities, and thought I would end up spending most of my life in those cells. So the moment, when it came, was unexpected. I was sharing a cup of tea when the voice of the floor announcer – another prisoner – filled all the rooms and corridors: “Dear fellow inmates, the bird of luck has once again sat on one fellow inmate’s shoulders. Mr Hossein Derakhshan, as of this moment, you are free.”
Outside, everything felt new: the chill autumn breeze, the traffic noise from a nearby bridge, the smell, the colours of the city I had lived in most of my life. Around me, I noticed a very different Tehran from the one I had been used to. An influx of new, shamelessly luxurious condos had replaced the charming little houses I was familiar with. New roads, new highways, hordes of invasive SUVs. Large billboards with advertisements for Swiss-made watches and Korean TVs. Women in colourful scarves and manteaus, men with dyed hair and beards, and hundreds of charming cafes with hip western music and female staff. They were the kind of changes that creep up on people; the kind you only really notice once normal life gets taken away from you.
Two weeks later, I began writing again. Some friends agreed to let me start a blog as part of their arts magazine. I called it Ketabkhan – it means book-reader in Persian.
Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it is an entire era online. Writing on the internet had not changed, but reading – or, at least, getting things read – had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become, so I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. It turned out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.
It became clear to me, right there, that things had changed. I was not equipped to play on this new turf — all my investment and effort had burned up. I was devastated.
Blogs were gold and bloggers were rock stars back in 2008 when I was arrested. At that point, and despite the fact the state was blocking access to my blog from inside Iran, I had an audience of around 20,000 people every day. People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, even those who hated my guts. I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted. I felt like a monarch.
The iPhone was a little over a year old, but smartphones were still mostly used to make phone calls and send short messages, handle emails, and surf the web. There were no real apps, certainly not how we think of them today. There was no Instagram, no SnapChat, WhatsApp. Instead, there was the web, and on the web, there were blogs: the best place to find alternative thoughts, news and analysis. They were my life.
It had all started with 9/11. I was in Toronto, and my father had just arrived from Tehran for a visit. We were having breakfast when the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I was puzzled and confused and, looking for insights and explanations, I came across blogs. Once I read a few, I thought: this is it, I should start one, and encourage all Iranians to start blogging as well. So, using Notepad on Windows, I started experimenting. Soon I was writing on hoder.com, using Blogger’s publishing platform before Google bought it.
Then, on 5 November 2001, I published a step-by-step guide on how to start a blog. That sparked something that was later called a blogging revolution: soon, hundreds and thousands of Iranians made it one of the top five nations by the number of blogs. I used to keep a list of all blogs in Persian and, for a while, I was the first person any new blogger in Iran would contact, so they could get on the list. That’s why they called me “the blogfather” in my mid-20s – it was a silly nickname, but at least it hinted at how much I cared.
The Iranian blogosphere was a diverse crowd – from exiled authors and journalists, female diarists, and technology experts, to local journalists, politicians, clerics, and war veterans . But you can never have too much diversity. I encouraged conservatives inside Iran to join and share their thoughts. I had left the country in late 2000 to experience living in the west, and was scared that I was missing all the rapidly emerging trends at home. But reading Iranian blogs in Toronto was the closest experience I could have to sitting in a shared taxi in Tehran and listening to collective conversations between the talkative driver and random passengers.
There’s a story in the Qur’an that I thought about a lot during my first eight months in solitary confinement. In it, a group of persecuted Christians find refuge in a cave. They, and a dog they have with them, fall into a deep sleep and wake up under the impression that they have taken a nap: in fact, it’s 300 years later. One version of the story tells of how one of them goes out to buy food – and I can only imagine how hungry they must have been after 300 years – and discovers that his money is obsolete now, a museum item. That’s when he realises how long they have been absent.
The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. It represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web – a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralisation – all the links, lines and hierarchies – and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks. Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realised how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.
Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object – the same as a photo, or a piece of text. You’re encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a quasi-democratic process of liking and plussing and hearting. But links are not objects, they are relations between objects. This objectivisation has stripped hyperlinks of their immense powers.
At the same time, these social networks tend to treat native text and pictures – things that are directly posted to them – with a lot more respect. One photographer friend explained to me how the images he uploads directly to Facebook receive many more likes than when he uploads them elsewhere and shares the link on Facebook.
Some networks, like Twitter, treat hyperlinks a little better. Others are far more paranoid. Instagram – owned by Facebook – doesn’t allow its audiences to leave whatsoever. You can put up a web address alongside your photos, but it won’t go anywhere. Lots of people start their daily online routine in these cul-de-sacs of social media, and their journeys end there. Many don’t even realise they are using the internet’s infrastructure when they like an Instagram photograph or leave a comment on a friend’s Facebook video. It’s just an app.
But hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: they are its eyes, a path to its soul. And a blind webpage, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage – and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web.
More or less all theorists have thought of gaze in relation to power, and mostly in a negative sense: the gazer strips the gazed and turns her into a powerless object, devoid of intelligence or agency. But in the world of webpages, gaze functions differently: it is more empowering. When a powerful website – say Google or Facebook – gazes at, or links to, another webpage, it doesn’t just connect it , it brings it into existence; gives it life. Without this empowering gaze, your web page doesn’t breathe. No matter how many links you have placed in a webpage, unless somebody is looking at it, it is actually both dead and blind, and therefore incapable of transferring power to any outside web page.
Apps like Instagram are blind, or almost blind. Their gaze goes inwards, reluctant to transfer any of their vast powers to others, leading them into quiet deaths. The consequence is that web pages outside social media are dying.
Even before I went to jail, though, the power of hyperlinks was being curbed. Itsbiggest enemy was a philosophy that combined two of the most dominant, and most overrated, values of our times: newness and popularity. (Isn’t this embodied these days by the real-world dominance of young celebrities?) That philosophy is the stream. The stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex and secretive algorithms.
The stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open the Facebook app on your smartphone and dive in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites. But what are we exchanging for efficiency?
Popularity is not wrong in and of itself, but it has its own perils. In a free-market economy, low-quality goods with the wrong prices are doomed to failure. Nobody gets upset when a quiet Hackney cafe with bad lattes and rude servers goes out of business. But political or religious opinions are not the same as material goods or services. They won’t disappear if they are unpopular or even wrong. In fact, history has proven that most big ideas (and many bad ones) have been quite unpopular for a long time, and their marginal status has only strengthened them. Minority views are radicalised when they can’t be heard or engaged with. That’s how Isis is recruiting and growing. The stream suppresses other types of unconventional ideas too, with its reliance on our habits.
Today the stream is digital media’s dominant form of organising information. It’s in every social network and mobile application. Since I gained my freedom, everywhere I turn I see the stream. I guess it won’t be too long before we see news websites organise their entire content based on the same principles. The prominence of the stream today doesn’t just make vast chunks of the internet biased against quality – it also means a deep betrayal to the diversity that the world wide web had originally envisioned.
The centralisation of information also worries me because it makes it easier for things to disappear. After my arrest, my hosting service closed my account, because I wasn’t able to pay its monthly fee. But at least I had a backup of all my posts in a database on my own web server. But what if my account on Facebook or Twitter is shut down for any reason? Those services themselves may not die any time soon, but it is not too difficult to imagine a day when many American services shut down the accounts of anyone from Iran, as a result of the current regime of sanctions. If that happened, I might be able to download my posts in some of them, and let’s assume the backup can be easily imported into another platform. But what about the unique web address for my social network profile? Would I be able to claim it back later, after somebody else has possessed it?
But the scariest outcome of the centralisation of information in the age of social networks is something else: it is making us all much less powerful in relation to governments and corporations. Surveillance is increasingly imposed on civilised lives, and it gets worse as time goes by. The only way to stay outside of this vast apparatus of surveillance might be to go into a cave and sleep, even if you can’t make it 300 years.
Ironically enough, states that cooperate with Facebook and Twitter know much more about their citizens than those, like Iran, where the state has a tight grip on the internet but does not have legal access to social media companies. What is more frightening than being merely watched, though, is being controlled. WhenFacebook can know us better than our parents with only 150 likes, and better than our spouses with 300 likes, the world appears quite predictable, both for governments and for businesses. And predictability means control.
Middle-class Iranians, like most people in the world, are obsessed with new trends. Since 2014 the hype is all about Instagram. There’s less and less text on social networks, and more and more video, more and more images, still or moving, to watch. Are we witnessing a decline of reading on the web in favour of watching and listening? The web started out by imitating books and for many years, it was heavily dominated by text, by hypertext. Search engines such as Google put huge value on these things, and entire companies – entire monopolies – were built off the back of them. But as the number of image scanners and digital photos and video cameras grows exponentially, this seems to be changing. Search tools are starting to add advanced image recognition algorithms; advertising money is flowing there.
The stream, mobile applications, and moving images all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication – nodes and networks and links – toward one that is linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.
When I log on to Facebook, my personal television starts. All I need to do is to scroll: New profile pictures by friends, short bits of opinion on current affairs, links to new stories with short captions, advertising, and of course self-playing videos. I occasionally click on the like or share button, read peoples’ comments or leave one, or open an article. But I remain inside Facebook, and it continues to broadcast what I might like. This is not the web I knew when I went to jail. This is not the future of the web. This future is television.
Soon the internet will be a collection of mobile apps rather than of websites. And the money these apps generate will be out of monthly subscription, instead of advertising – something like cable television with its various theme-based packages, and its primetime. (Already if you want to post anything to a social network, you have to do it early morning or late night, when most people are using the app.)
Sometimes I think maybe I’m becoming too strict as I age. Maybe this is all a natural evolution of a technology. But I can’t close my eyes to what’s happening: a loss of intellectual power and diversity. In the past, the web was powerful and serious enough to land me in jail. Today it feels like little more than entertainment. So much that even Iran doesn’t take some – Instagram, for instance – serious enough to block.
I miss when people took time to be exposed to opinions other than their own, and bothered to read more than a paragraph or 140 characters. I miss the days when I could write something on my own blog, publish on my own domain, without taking an equal time to promote it on numerous social networks; when nobody cared about likes and reshares, and best time to post.
That’s the web I remember before jail. That’s the web we have to save.
• Hossein Derakhshan (@h0d3r) is a Tehran-based author. He is currently working on an art project called Link-age to promote hyperlinks and the open web.