How Silicon Valley denies us the freedom to pay attention

Free your brain: 

A continual quest for attention both drives and compromises Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian vision

Free your brain: How Silicon Valley denies us the freedom to pay attention
(Credit: Salon/Flora Thevoux)

In late June, Mark Zuckerberg announced the new mission of Facebook: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

The rhetoric of the statement is carefully selected, centered on empowering people, and in so doing, ushering in world peace, or at least something like it. Tech giants across Silicon Valley are adopting similarly utopian visions, casting themselves as the purveyors of a more connected, more enlightened, more empowered future. Every year, these companies articulate their visions onstage at internationally streamed pep rallies, Apple’s WWDC and Google’s I/O being the best known.

But companies like Facebook can only “give people the power” because we first ceded it to them, in the form of our attention. After all, that is how many Silicon Valley companies thrive: Our attention, in the form of eyes and ears, provides a medium for them to advertise to us. And the more time we spend staring at them, the more money Facebook and Twitter make — in effect, it’s in their interest that we become psychologically dependent on the self-esteem boost from being wired in all the time.

This quest for our eyeballs doesn’t mesh well with Silicon Valley’s utopian visions of world peace and people power. Earlier this year, many sounded alarm bells when a “60 Minutes” exposé revealed the creepy cottage industry of “brain-hacking,” industrial psychology techniques that tech giants use and study to make us spend as much time staring at screens as possible.

Indeed, it is Silicon Valley’s continual quest for attention that both motivates their utopian dreams, and that compromises them from the start. As a result, the tech industry often has compromised ethics when it comes to product design.

Case in point: At January’s Consumer Electronics Convention – a sort of Mecca for tech start-ups dreaming of making it big – I found myself in a suite with one of the largest kid-tech (children’s toys) developers in the world. A small flock of PR reps, engineers and executives hovered around the entryway as one development head walked my photographer and me through the mock setup. They were showing off the first voice assistant developed solely with kids in mind.

At the end of the tour, I asked if the company had researched or planned to research the effects of voice assistant usage on kids. After all, parents had been using tablets to occupy their kids for years by the time evidence of their less-than-ideal impact on children’s attention, behavior and sleep emerged.

The answer I received was gentle but firm: No, because we respect parents’ right to make decisions on behalf of their children.

This free-market logic – that says the consumer alone arbitrates the value of a product – is pervasive in Silicon Valley. What consumer, after all, is going to argue they can’t make their own decisions responsibly? But a free market only functions properly when consumers operate with full agency and access to information, and tech companies are working hard to limit both.

During a “60 Minutes” story on brain hacking, former product manager at Google Tristan Harris said, “There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it.”

The problem, according to Harris, is that “this is just not true… [Developers] want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money.”

Harris was homing in on the fact that, increasingly, it isn’t the price tag on the platform itself that earns companies money, but the attention they control on said platform – whether it’s a voice assistant, operating system, app or website. We literally “pay” attention to ads or sponsored content in order to access websites.

But Harris went on to explain that larger platforms, using systems of rewards similar to slot machines, are working not only to monetize our attention, but also to monopolize it. And with that monopoly comes incredible power.

If Facebook, for instance, can control hours of people’s attention daily, it can not only determine the rate at which it will sell that attention to advertisers, but also decide which advertisers or content creators it will sell to. In other words, in an attention economy Facebook becomes a gatekeeper for content – one that mediates not only personalized advertising, but also news and information.

This sort of monopoly brings the expected fiscal payoff, and also the amassing of immeasurable social and cultural power.

So how does Facebook’s new mission statement fit into this attention economy?

Think of it in terms of optics. The carotid artery of Facebook, along with the other tech giants of Silicon Valley, is brand. Brand ubiquity means Facebook is the first thing people check when they take their phones out of their pockets, or when they open Chrome or Safari (brought to you by Google and Apple, respectively). It means Prime Day is treated like a real holiday. Just like Kleenex means tissues and Xerox means copy, online search has literally become synonymous with Google.

Yet all these companies are painfully aware of what a brand-gone-bad can do – or undo. The current generation of online platforms is built on the foundations of empires that rose and fell while the attention economy was still incipient. Today’s companies have maintained their centrality by consistently copying (Instagram Stories, a clone of Snapchat) or outright purchasing (YouTube) their fiercest competitors – all to maintain or expand their brand.

And perhaps as important, tech giants have made it near impossible to imagine a future without them, simply by being the most prominent public entities doing such imagining.

Facebook’s mission affixes the company in our shared future, and also injects it with a moral or at least charitable sensibility – even if it’s only in the form of “bring[ing] the world closer together”-type vagaries.

So how should we as average consumers respond?

In his award-winning essay “Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy,” James Williams argues, “We must … move urgently to assert and defend our freedom of attention.”

To assert our freedom is to sufficiently recognize and evaluate the demands to attention all these devices and digital services represent. To defend our freedom entails two forms of action: first, by individual action – not unplugging completely, as the self-styled prophets of Facebook and Twitter encourage (before logging back on after a few months of asceticism) – but rather unplugging partially, habitually and ruthlessly.

Attention is the currency upon which tech giants are built. And the power of agency and free information is the power we cede when we turn over our attention wholly to platforms like Facebook.

But individual consumers can only do so much. The second way we must defend our freedom is through our demand for ethical practices from Silicon Valley.

Some critics believe government regulation is the only way to rein in Silicon Valley developers. The problem is, federal agencies that closely monitor the effects of product usage on consumers don’t have a good category for monitoring the effects of online platforms yet. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tracks medical technology. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) focuses on physical risk to consumers. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC)  focuses on content — not platform. In other words, we don’t have a precedent for monitoring social media or other online platforms and their methods for retaining users.

Currently, there is no corollary agency that leads dedicated research into the effects of platforms like Facebook on users. There is no Surgeon General’s warning. There is no real protection for consumers from unethical practices by tech giants — as long as those practices fall in the cracks between existing ethics standards.

While it might seem idealistic to hold out for the creation of a new government agency that monitors Facebook (especially given the current political regime), the first step toward curbing Silicon Valley’s power is simple: We must acknowledge freedom of attention as an inalienable right — one inextricable from our freedom to pursue happiness. So long as the companies producing the hardware surrounding us and the platforms orienting social life online face no strictures, they will actively work to control how users think, slowly eroding our society’s collective free will.

With so much at stake, and with so little governmental infrastructure in place, checking tech giants’ ethics might seem like a daunting task. The U.S. government, after all, has demonstrated a consistent aversion to challenging Silicon Valley’s business and consumer-facing practices before.

But while we fight for better policy and stronger ethics-enforcing bodies, we can take one more practical step: “pay” attention to ethics in Silicon Valley. Read about Uber’s legal battles and the most recent research on social media’s effects on the brain. Demand more ethical practices from the companies we patronize. Why? The best moderators of technology ethics thus far have been tech giants themselves — when such moderation benefits the companies’ brands.

In Silicon Valley, money talks, but attention talks louder. It’s time to reclaim our voice.

http://www.salon.com/2017/08/05/free-your-brain-how-silicon-valley-denies-us-the-freedom-to-pay-attention/?source=newsletter

Google’s new search protocol is restricting access to 13 leading socialist, progressive and anti-war web sites

2 August 2017

New data compiled by the World Socialist Web Site, with the assistance of other Internet-based news outlets and search technology experts, proves that a massive loss of readership observed by socialist, anti-war and progressive web sites over the past three months has been caused by a cumulative 45 percent decrease in traffic from Google searches.

The drop followed the implementation of changes in Google’s search evaluation protocols. In a statement issued on April 25, Ben Gomes, the company’s vice president for engineering, stated that Google’s update of its search engine would block access to “offensive” sites, while working to surface more “authoritative content.”

The World Socialist Web Site has obtained statistical data from SEMrush estimating the decline of traffic generated by Google searches for 13 sites with substantial readerships. The results are as follows:

* wsws.org fell by 67 percent
* alternet.org fell by 63 percent
* globalresearch.ca fell by 62 percent
* consortiumnews.com fell by 47 percent
* socialistworker.org fell by 47 percent
* mediamatters.org fell by 42 percent
* commondreams.org fell by 37 percent
* internationalviewpoint.org fell by 36 percent
* democracynow.org fell by 36 percent
* wikileaks.org fell by 30 percent
* truth-out.org fell by 25 percent
* counterpunch.org fell by 21 percent
* theintercept.com fell by 19 percent

Of the 13 web sites on the list, the World Socialist Web Site has been the most heavily affected. Its traffic from Google searches has fallen by two thirds.

The new statistics demonstrate that the WSWS is a central target of Google’s censorship campaign. In the twelve months preceding the implementation of the new Google protocols, the WSWS had experienced a substantial increase in readership. A significant component of this increase was the product of Google search results. The rapid rise in search traffic reflected the well-documented growth in popular interest in socialist politics during 2016. The rate of growth accelerated following the November election, which led to large protests against the election of Trump.

Search traffic to the WSWS peaked in April 2017, precisely at the point when Google began the implementation of its censorship protocols.

Another site affected by Google’s action has provided information that confirms the findings of the WSWS.

“In late May, changes to Google’s algorithm negatively impacted the volume of traffic to the Common Dreams website from organic Google searches,” said Aaron Kaufman, director of development at progressive news outlet Common Dreams. “Since May, traffic from Google Search as a percentage of total traffic to the Common Dreams website has decreased nearly 50 percent.”

The extent and impact of Google’s actions prove that a combination of techniques is being employed to block access to targeted sites. These involve the direct flagging and blackballing of the WSWS and the other 12 sites listed above by Google evaluators. These sites are assigned a highly negative rating that assures that their articles will be either demoted or entirely bypassed. In addition, new programming technology teaches the computers to think like the evaluators, that is, to emulate their preferences and prejudices.

Finally, the precision of this operation strongly suggests that there is an additional range of exclusion techniques involving the selection of terms, words, phrases and topics that are associated with socialist and left-wing websites.

This would explain why the World Socialist Web Site, which focuses on issues such as war, geopolitics, social inequality and working class struggles has experienced such a dramatic fall in Google-generated searches on these very topics. We have seen that the very terms and phrases that would under normal circumstances be most likely to generate the highest level of hits—such as “socialism,” “Marxism” and “Trotskyism”—produce the lowest results.

This is an ongoing process in which one can expect that Google evaluators are continuously adding suspect terms to make their algorithm ever more precise, with the eventual goal of eliminating traffic to the WSWS and other targeted sites.

The information that has been gathered and published by the WSWS during the past week exposes that Google is at the center of a corporate-state conspiracy to drastically curtail democratic rights. The attack on free speech and uncensored access to information is aimed at crippling popular opposition to social inequality, war and authoritarianism.

The central and sinister role of Google in this process demonstrates that freedom of speech and thought is incompatible with corporate control of the Internet.

As we continue our exposure of Google’s assault on democratic rights, we demand that it immediately and unequivocally halt and revoke its censorship program.

It is critical that a coordinated campaign be organized within the United States and internationally against Google’s censorship of the Internet. We intend to do everything in our power to develop and contribute to a counter-offensive against its efforts to suppress freedom of speech and thought.

The fight against corporate-state censorship of the Internet is central to the defense of democratic rights, and there must be a broad-based collaboration among socialist, left and progressive websites to alert the public and the widest sections of the working class.

Andre Damon and David North

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/08/02/pers-a02.html

Google’s chief search engineer legitimizes new censorship algorithm

By Andre Damon
31 July 2017

Between April and June, Google completed a major revision of its search engine that sharply curtails public access to Internet web sites that operate independently of the corporate and state-controlled media. Since the implementation of the changes, many left wing, anti-war and progressive web sites have experienced a sharp fall in traffic generated by Google searches. The World Socialist Web Site has seen, within just one month, a 70 percent drop in traffic from Google.

In a blog post published on April 25, Ben Gomes, Google’s chief search engineer, rolled out the new censorship program in a statement bearing the Orwellian title, “Our latest quality improvements for search.” This statement has been virtually buried by the corporate media. Neither the New York Times nor the Wall Street Journal has reported the statement. The Washington Post limited its coverage of the statement to a single blog post.

Framed as a mere change to technical procedures, Gomes’s statement legitimizes Internet censorship as a necessary response to “the phenomenon of ‘fake news,’ where content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information.”

The “phenomenon of ‘fake news’” is, itself, the principal “fake news” story of 2017. In its origins and propagation, it has all the well-known characteristics of what used to be called CIA “misinformation” campaigns, aimed at discrediting left-wing opponents of state and corporate interests.

Significantly, Gomes does not provide any clear definition, let alone concrete examples, of any of these loaded terms (“fake news,” “blatantly misleading,” “low quality, “offensive,” and “down right false information.”)

The focus of Google’s new censorship algorithm is political news and opinion sites that challenge official government and corporate narratives. Gomes writes: “[I]t’s become very apparent that a small set of queries in our daily traffic (around 0.25 percent), have been returning offensive or clearly misleading content, which is not what people are looking for.”

Gomes revealed that Google has recruited some 10,000 “evaluators” to judge the “quality” of various web domains. The company has “evaluators—real people who assess the quality of Google’s search results—give us feedback on our experiments.” The chief search engineer does not identify these “evaluators” nor explain the criteria that are used in their selection. However, using the latest developments in programming, Google can teach its search engines to “think” like the evaluators, i.e., translate their political preferences, prejudices, and dislikes into state and corporate sanctioned results.

Gomes asserts that these “evaluators” are to abide by the company’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines, which “provide more detailed examples of low-quality webpages for raters to appropriately flag, which can include misleading information, unexpected offensive results, hoaxes and unsupported conspiracy theories.”

Once again, Gomes employs inflammatory rhetoric without explaining the objective basis upon which negative evaluations of web sites are based.

Using the input of these “evaluators,” Gomes declares that Google has “improved our evaluation methods and made algorithmic updates to surface more authoritative content.” He again asserts, further down, “We’ve adjusted our signals to help surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content.”

What this means, concretely, is that Google decides not only what political views it wants censored, but also what sites are to be favored.

Gomes is clearly in love with the term “authoritative,” and a study of the word’s meaning explains the nature of his verbal infatuation. A definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary for the word “authoritative” is: “Proceeding from an official source and requiring compliance or obedience.”

The April 25 statement indicates that the censorship protocols will become increasingly restrictive. Gomes states that Google is “making good progress” in making its search results more restrictive. “But in order to have long-term and impactful changes, more structural changes in Search are needed.”

One can assume that Mr. Gomes is a competent programmer and software engineer. But one has good reason to doubt that he has any particular knowledge of, let alone concern for, freedom of speech.

Gomes’s statement is Google-speak for saying that the company does not want people to access anything besides the official narrative, worked out by the government, intelligence agencies, the main capitalist political parties, and transmitted to the population by the corporate-controlled media.

In the course of becoming a massive multi-billion dollar corporate juggernaut, Google has developed politically insidious and dangerous ties to powerful and repressive state agencies. It maintains this relationship not only with the American state, but also with governments overseas. Just a few weeks before implementing its new algorithm, in early April, Gomes met with high-ranking German officials in Berlin to discuss the new censorship protocols.

Google the search engine is now a major force for the imposition of state censorship.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/07/31/goog-j31.html

New Google algorithm restricts access to left-wing, progressive web sites

By Andre Damon and Niles Niemuth
27 July 2017

In the three months since Internet monopoly Google announced plans to keep users from accessing “fake news,” the global traffic rankings of a broad range of left-wing, progressive, anti-war and democratic rights organizations have fallen significantly.

On April 25, 2017, Google announced that it had implemented changes to its search service to make it harder for users to access what it called “low-quality” information such as “conspiracy theories” and “fake news.”

The company said in a blog post that the central purpose of the change to its search algorithm was to give the search giant greater control in identifying content deemed objectionable by its guidelines. It declared that it had “improved our evaluation methods and made algorithmic updates” in order “to surface more authoritative content.”

Google continued, “Last month, we updated our Search Quality Rater Guidelines to provide more detailed examples of low-quality webpages for raters to appropriately flag.” These moderators are instructed to flag “upsetting user experiences,” including pages that present “conspiracy theories,” unless “the query clearly indicates the user is seeking an alternative viewpoint.”

Google does not explain precisely what it means by the term “conspiracy theory.” Using the broad and amorphous category of fake news, the aim of the change to Google’s search system is to restrict access to alternative web sites, whose coverage and interpretation of events conflict with those of such establishment media outlets as the New York Times and the Washington Post.

By flagging content in such a way that it does not appear in the first one or two pages of a search result, Google is able to effectively block users’ access to it. Given the fact that vast amounts of web traffic are influenced by search results, Google is able to effectively conceal or bury content to which it objects through the manipulation of search rankings.

Just last month, the European Commission fined the company $2.7 billion for manipulating search results to inappropriately direct users to its own comparison shopping service, Google Shopping. Now, it appears that Google is using these criminal methods to block users from accessing political viewpoints the company deems objectionable.

The WSWS has been targeted by Google’s new “evaluation methods.” While in April 2017, 422,460 visits to the WSWS originated from Google searches, the figure has dropped to an estimated 120,000 this month, a fall of more than 70 percent.

Even when using search terms such as “socialist” and “socialism,” readers have informed us that they find it increasingly difficult to locate the World Socialist Web Site in Google searches.

Referals from Google searches to the WSWS have fallen by about 70 percent

According to Google’s webmaster tools service, the number of searches resulting in users seeing content from the World Socialist Web Site (that is, a WSWS article appeared in a Google search) fell from 467,890 a day to 138,275 over the past three months. The average position of articles in searches, meanwhile, fell from 15.9 to 37.2 over the same period.

David North, chairperson of the International Editorial Board of the WSWS, stated that Google is engaged in political censorship.

“The World Socialist Web Site has been in existence for nearly 20 years,” he said, “and it has developed a large international audience. During this past spring, the number of individual visits to the WSWS each month exceeded 900,000.

“While a significant percentage of our readers enter the WSWS directly, many web users access the site through search engines, of which Google is the most widely used. There is no innocent explanation for the extraordinarily sharp fall in readers, virtually overnight, coming from Google searches.

“Google’s claim that it is protecting readers from ‘fake news’ is a politically motivated lie. Google, a massive monopoly, with the closest ties to the state and intelligence agencies, is blocking access to the WSWS and other left and progressive web sites through a system of rigged searches.”

In the three months since Google implemented the changes to its search engine, fewer people have accessed left-wing and anti-war news sites. Based on information available on Alexa analytics, other sites that have experienced sharp drops in ranking include WikiLeaks, Alternet, Counterpunch, Global Research, Consortium News and Truthout. Even prominent democratic rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International appear to have been hit.

A broad range of left-wing, progressive, and anti-war sites have had their traffic rankings fall in recent months

According to Google Trends, the term “fake news” roughly quadrupled in popularity in early November, around the time of the US election, as Democrats, establishment media outlets and intelligence agencies sought to blame “false information” for the electoral victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

On November 14, the New York Times proclaimed that Google and Facebook “faced mounting criticism over how fake news on their sites may have influenced the presidential election’s outcome,” and they would be taking measures to combat “fake news.”

Ten days later, the Washington Post published an article, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say,” which cited an anonymous group known as PropOrNot that compiled a list of “fake news” sites spreading “Russian propaganda.”

The list included several sites categorized by the group as “left-wing.” Significantly, it targeted globalresearch.ca, which often reposts articles from the World Socialist Web Site.

After widespread criticism of what was little more than a blacklist of anti-war and anti-establishment sites, the Washington Post was forced to publish a retraction, declaring, “The Post, which did not name any of the sites, does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings.”

On April 7, Bloomberg News reported that Google was working directly with the Washington Post and the New York Times to “fact-check” articles and eliminate “fake news.” This was followed by Google’s new search methodology.

Three months later, out of the 17 sites declared to be “fake news” by the Washington Post ’s discredited blacklist, 14 had their global ranking fall. The average decline of the global reach of all of these sites is 25 percent, and some sites saw their global reach fall by as much as 60 percent.

“The actions of Google constitute political censorship and are a blatant attack on free speech,” North stated. “At a time when public distrust of establishment media is widespread, this corporate giant is exploiting its monopolistic position to restrict public access to a broad spectrum of news and critical analysis.”

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/07/27/goog-j27.html

How Privatization Could Spell the End of Democracy

ECONOMY
Between Trump and tech, never before have so many powerful people been so intent on transforming government into a business.

Brands: Amazon, Yelp, Uber, Hillary
Photo Credit: Jewish Journal

It’s a hot day in New York City. You’re thirsty, but your water bottle is empty. So you walk into a store and place your bottle in a machine. You activate the machine with an app on your phone, and it fills your bottle with tap water. Now you are no longer thirsty.

This is the future envisioned by the founders of a startup called Reefill. If the premise sounds oddly familiar, that’s because it is: Reefill has reinvented the water fountain as a Bluetooth-enabled subscription service. Customers pay $1.99 a month for the privilege of using its machines, located at participating businesses around Manhattan.

Predictably, the company has already come in for its fair share of ridicule. In Slate, Henry Grabar called it “tap water in a suit”. But while Reefill is a particularly cartoonish example, its basic business model is a popular one within tech. The playbook is simple: take a public service and build a private, app-powered version of it.

he most obvious examples are Uber and Lyft, which aspire not merely to eliminate the taxi industry, but to replace public transportation. They’re slowly succeeding: municipalities around America are now subsidizing ride-hailing fares instead of running public buses. And earlier this year, Lyft began offering a fixed-route, flat-rate service called Lyft Shuttle in Chicago and San Francisco – an aggressive bid to poach more riders from public transit.

These companies wouldn’t have customers if better public alternatives existed. It can be hard to find a water fountain in Manhattan, and public transit in American cities ranges from mediocre to nonexistent. But solving these problems by ceding them to the private sector ensures that public services will continue to deteriorate until they disappear.

Decades of defunding and outsourcing have already pushed public services to the brink. Now, fortified with piles of investor cash and the smartphone, tech companies are trying to finish them off.

Proponents of privatization believe this is a good thing. For years, they have advanced the argument that business will always perform a given task better than government, whether it’s running buses or schools, supplying healthcare or housing. The public sector is sclerotic, wasteful and undisciplined by the profit motive. The private sector is dynamic, innovative and, above all, efficient.

This belief has become common sense in political life. It is widely shared by the country’s elite, and has guided much policymaking over the past several decades. But like most of our governing myths, it collapses on closer inspection.

No word is invoked more frequently or more fervently by apostles of privatization than efficiency. Yet this is a strange basis on which to build their case, given the fact that public services are often more efficient than private ones. Take healthcare. The United States has one of the least efficient systems on the planet: we spend more money on healthcare than anyone else, and in return we receive some of the worst health outcomes in the west. Not coincidentally, we also have the most privatized healthcare system in the advanced world. By contrast, the UK spends a fraction of what we do and achieves far better results. It also happens to provision healthcare as a public service. Somehow, the absence of the profit motive has not produced an epidemic of inefficiency in British healthcare. Meanwhile, we pay nearly $10,000 per capita and a staggering 17% of our GDP to achieve a life expectancy somewhere between that of Costa Rica and Cuba.

A profit-driven system doesn’t mean we get more for our money – it means someone gets to make more money off of us. The healthcare industry posts record profits and rewards its chief executives with the highest salaries in the country. It takes a peculiar frame of mind to see this arrangement as anything resembling efficient.

Attacking public services on the grounds of efficiency isn’t just incorrect, however – it’s beside the point. Decades of neoliberalism have corroded our capacity to think in non-economic terms. We’ve been taught that all fields of human life should be organized as markets, and that government should be run like a business. This ideology has found its perverse culmination in the figure of Donald Trump, a celebrity billionaire with no prior political experience who catapulted himself into the White House by invoking his expertise as an businessman. The premise of Trump’s campaign was that America didn’t need a president – it needed a CEO.

Nowhere is the neoliberal faith embodied by Trump more deeply felt than in Silicon Valley. Tech entrepreneurs work tirelessly to turn more of our lives into markets and devote enormous resources towards “disrupting” government by privatizing its functions. Perhaps this is why, despite Silicon Valley’s veneer of liberal cosmopolitanism, it has a certain affinity for the president. On Monday, Trump met with top executives from Apple, Amazon, Google and other major tech firms to explore how to “unleash the creativity of the private sector to provide citizen services”, in the words of Jared Kushner. Between Trump and tech, never before have so many powerful people been so intent on transforming government into a business.

But government isn’t a business; it’s a different kind of machine. At its worst, it can be repressive and corrupt and autocratic. At its best, it can be an invaluable tool for developing and sustaining a democratic society. Among other things, this includes ensuring that everyone receives the resources they need to exercise the freedoms on which democracy depends. When we privatize public services, we don’t just risk replacing them with less efficient alternatives – we risk damaging democracy itself.

If this seems like a stretch, that’s because pundits and politicians have spent decades defining the idea of democracy downwards. It has come to mean little more than holding elections every few years. But this is the absolute minimum of democracy’s meaning. Its Greek root translates to “rule of the people” – not rule by certain people, such as the rich (plutocracy) or the priests (theocracy), but by all people. Democracy describes a way of organizing society in which the whole of the people determine how society should be organized.

What does this have to do with buses or schools or hospitals or houses? In a democracy, everyone gets to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. But that’s impossible if people don’t have access to the goods they need to survive – if they’re hungry or homeless or sick. And the reality is that when goods are rationed by the market, fewer people have access to them. Markets are places of winners and losers. You don’t get what you need – you get what you can afford.

By contrast, public services offer a more equitable way to satisfy basic needs. By taking things off the market, government can democratize access to the resources that people rely on to lead reasonably dignified lives. Those resources can be offered cheap or free, funded by progressive taxation. They can also be managed by publicly accountable institutions led by elected officials, or subject to more direct mechanisms of popular control.

These ideas are considered wildly radical in American politics. Yet other places around the world have implemented them with great success. When Oxfam surveyed more than 100 countries, they discovered that public services significantly reduce economic inequality. They shrink the distance between rich and poor by lowering the cost of living. They empower working people by making their survival less dependent on their bosses and landlords and creditors. Perhaps most importantly, they entitle citizens to a share of society’s wealth and a say over how it’s used.

But where will the money come from? This is the perennial question, posed whenever someone suggests raising the welfare state above a whisper. Fortunately, it has a simple answer. The United States is the richest country in the history of the world. It is so rich, in fact, that its richest people can afford to pour billions of dollars into a company such as Uber, which loses billions of dollars each year, in the hopes of getting just a little bit richer. In the face of such extravagance, diverting a modest portion of the prosperity we produce in common toward services that benefit everyone shouldn’t be controversial. It’s a small price to pay for making democracy mean more than a hollow slogan, or a sick joke.

Silicon Valley’s advertisements aren’t just selling products — they’re selling an ideology

The utopian futures we see in tech ads have a trickle-down effect on how we perceive the role of tech in our lives

Silicon Valley’s advertisements aren’t just selling products — they’re selling an ideology
(Credit: Getty/NelleG)

A man and woman are awakened by the cooing alarm emanating from a massive wall-mounted touchscreen. A wall of floor-to-ceiling photochromic windows gradually brightens to reveal the morning sun kissing a lush estate garden. The scene shifts to the woman brushing her teeth while checking work email from a bathroom mirror screen. Moments later, two girls in school uniforms stand in a gleaming white kitchen; one of them is playing with a touchscreen-covered refrigerator door while the father makes an omelet on a sleek high-tech induction stovetop interacting with yet another touchscreen embedded in the countertop.

Amid the tinkling of an electric keyboard, this five-minute promotional video from Gorilla Glass manufacturer Corning walks us through the day of this fictional wealthy family in an idealized version of a Manhattan-like “smart” city impossibly devoid of traffic. Corning isn’t just selling its durable glass, but its vision of future society.

In Corningland, everyone is happy, wealthy and living out fruitful, productive lives, surrounded by products of benevolent technological disruption. This world has no unhappy Uber drivers, Airbnb-fueled gentrification doesn’t exist and iPads in the classrooms actually help to educate children. When tech marketing underscores social or global problems, it’s used only as a setup to underscore how technology can solve them.

“It’s like you have one class [in tech-focused promotional material] and the class that you have is upper middle,” Chris Birks, associate professor of digital media at Benedictine University, told Salon. “You see a utopian vision, not one necessarily of everyone being super rich, but doing better than they were because of the new technology we have, which is not the case.”

As 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson famously said: “Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement.” It’s natural for product promotions to either depict the world in utopian terms or to engage in what’s known as “constructive discontent,” in which a problem is highlighted in order to show that a product or service is its solution.

But unlike, say, environmentally unfriendly laundry detergent or sugary carbonated beverages, the underlying assumptions proposed by ads for Google Glass, Amazon Prime, Microsoft Cloud and other innovative products often  go unquestioned.

“Technology advertising is especially interesting because what it’s doing is saying all technological advances are good and all technology is beneficial to the people who will be lucky enough to adopt it,” John Carroll, assistant professor of Mass Communications as Boston University, who specializes in advertising and media criticism, told Salon. “There’s nothing that says an advertisement needs to point out the downside of a product, but one of the issues here is that the counterbalancing argument that not all innovation is beneficial doesn’t get the kind of exposure that might be helpful to the public.”

Indeed, visit any technology-focused media outlet, or the tech sections of many news organizations, and you’ll see that “gadget porn” videos, hagiographic profiles of startup founders or the regurgitation of lofty growth expectations from Wall Street analysts vastly outnumber critical analyses of technological disruption. The criticisms that do exist tend to focus on ancillary issues, such as Silicon Valley’s dismal lack of workplace diversity, or how innovation is upsetting norms in the labor market, or the class-based digital divide; all are no doubt important topics, but they’re ones that don’t question the overall assumptions that innovation and disruption are at worst harmless if not benevolent.

Carroll says that it’s up to the media, schools and even religious institutions to counterbalance the presumptions made in advertising, whose goal, he points out, is often to portray happiness “through acquisition as opposed to achievement.”

This idea of selling innovation as a pathway to universal prosperity isn’t new. In the 1980s, South Korean technology companies LG and Samsung were churning out idealistic portrayals of technology’s role in creating what Su-Ji Lee, a faculty member at Seoul National University who studies design and culture, described in a paper published in November as “technological utopianism.” The idea that technology will save us all emerged in South Korea during the country’s rapid economic development following decades of poverty.

In these ads, Samsung and LG portrayed consumers as happy or bewildered children, innocent and helpless, as technology lorded benevolently over the innocent and helpless, bringing to them (and to Korea itself) a new era of post-war prosperity.

In these advertisements, Lee writes, “the corporations . . . [play] the leading role of progress towards the future and enlightenment of people.” In these advertising campaigns, she continued, “the hero is the corporation rather than the human.”

Birks, who has studied utopian depictions in web advertising, says that while innovation can be off-putting and certainly not always benevolent, it’s always been the case that innovators views themselves as disruptors.

“For better or worse, they are changing the world,” he said.

Like any sector, the tech industry isn’t going to underscore the negative implications of its innovations in its own promotional materials. Helped by more objective and less fawning tech coverage, people can decide how much technology they want in their lives. Perhaps it would help them if they realized that many of the tech industry’s most celebrated heroes, including the late Steve Jobs, are so wary of emerging technologies that they keep their own children away from their own gadgets..

 

http://www.salon.com/2017/06/24/silicon-valleys-advertisements-arent-just-selling-products-they-are-selling-an-ideology/?source=newsletter

Why are there so many billionaires leading money-losing companies?

Uber lost $708 million in 6 months, but its CEO/founder is worth billions. Is Silicon Valley a pyramid scheme?

Why are there so many billionaires leading money-losing companies?
(Credit: Getty/Ronstik)

In a financial report released last week, ride-hailing app company Uber reported a staggering $708 million loss for the first three months of the year. Since the company was founded eight years ago, it’s burned through almost half of the $15 billion in private venture capital that it has raised.

But despite the mounting losses, the departure of more than a dozen company executives over the past year and a string of controversies that would send the typical company plunging into an irreversible death spiral, Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick’s net worth is immense.

According to Forbes, Kalanick is worth $6.3 billion, making him the world’s 226th wealthiest billionaire and the 35th richest magnate of the global tech industry. That makes him richer than Wal-Mart heiress Christy Walton and Liu Qiandong, founder and head of Chinese e-commerce and retail giant JD.com, which recently reported $11 billion in quarterly sales and its first profit as a publicly traded company.

Kalanick’s bounty seems largely immune (so far) to Uber’s string of mishaps, including allegations of about its workplace being hostile to women, a bitter legal fight with Google over allegedly stolen self-driving car technology, scrutiny over the company’s attempt to deceive government officials, and other controversies concerning its treatment of drivers.

So how does a 40-year-old computer programmer heading a beleaguered and unprofitable company have a net worth greater than the gross domestic product of Barbados?

The short answer is: hopes, dreams and aspirations. Specifically, those of the Uber’s financial backers, who believe in the gospel that Uber is on its way to killing the global taxi industry.

Under normal startup circumstances, a business faces intense pressure to attain profitability within a short period of time. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 1 in 5 new businesses goes under in the first year while nearly half fail within the fifth year. According to a 2015 study from Babson and Baruch Colleges, the typical entrepreneur provides nearly 60 percent of the funding needed for his or her business.

But in the world of Silicon Valley, profitability takes a back seat as deep-pocketed investors throw money at long-term aspirations. For years private investors have assigned sky-high valuations to tech industry startups in a bid to find the next Amazon or Google nestled in some Northern California office building or garage. Billionaire investors, private equity firms and sovereign wealth fund managers are willing to take considerable risks that mushroom the wealth of founders and CEOs to astronomical levels.

Kalanick is a billionaire because private investors have assigned a value to Uber based on its future potential; that’s where the hopey-dreamy stuff comes in. The company is currently valued at a sky-high $68 billion according to CBInsights, more than half the value of global aerospace behemoth Boeing. Because Kalanick is a primary shareholder of Uber, his net worth is boosted by this potentially irrational valuation, making him a “paper” billionaire.

Though what he does with his equity is not publicly known, Kalanick can potentially leverage this net worth to grow his personal fortune by using his stake in Uber to engage in other business endeavors, like buying real estate or investing in securities, all based on what private investors think his startup is worth.

In the typical scenario, an executive at private equity firm considering an investment in a private startup might compare the numbers offered in a business plan with those of a comparable publicly traded company and examine operating costs, profit margins and overall capital structure. If the startup has a prospectus with targets that seem viable compared with those of an existing competitor, investors will have some degree of confidence that they’ll wind up with a windfall of profit once the company is acquired or it files an initial public offering.

But because of the strange nature of the tech industry, there often isn’t a comparable company upon which investors can base their assessments. When Amazon was raising money in the early 1990s, there was no existing competitor with a similar business model, so early investors had to make estimates and assumptions to base their hopes on. It is interesting that very few individuals invested in Amazon prior to its initial public offering.

In retrospect, offering seed money to Amazon was a no brainer. Internet commerce was growing by a staggering 2,300 percent a year in 1994, and Jeff Bezos saw that light early and famously drew up a business plan during a road trip to Seattle. Venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers was one of a few private investors that gave Bezos money early on, and it reaped a fortune after Amazon filed its initial public offering in 1997 just as the dot-com bubble peaked.

But the success of tech companies like Amazon.com and Google are few and far between. Often the decision by private investors whether to invest in a technology startup is based on assumptions, best estimates and industrywide averages of publicly traded companies in the same sector.

While private equity firms have special access to review a startup’s books, CEO- founders have much more latitude in selling their plans and manipulating their numbers than the heads of established publicly traded companies, who face more regulatory scrutiny.

Once startups make their way to the public markets through initial public offerings, founder-CEOs can continue to reap billions from their company’s valuations without the companies making a dime in profit. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who’s worth an estimated $16 billion, the head of Snap, Evan Spiegel ($4.7 billion) and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey ($1.8 billion) are notable examples of rich CEOs who head unprofitable companies.

These founder-CEOs can spend good portions of their lives as billionaire heads of money-losing companies as long as investors keep believing that these companies may someday strike it rich. But there’s always a make-or-break point, and paper billionaire are always at risk of sinking their fortunes with investors losing their shirts. One thing is almost certain: Even if Uber crashes and burns, Kalanick would likely walk away from the wreckage a very wealthy computer programmer.