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    My New Year Resolution for 2020 – Avoiding Big Tech To Be Free Again

    January 2020

    It’s no secret to most of us that Silicon Valley’s electronic minions follow us everywhere in our pocket .They see everything, and they report everything they see. They know more about you and me, by the numbers, than you and me know about ourselves. What you and I forget, they remember. What you and I seek, they store. We are tagged and tracked like calf and cow, profiled de minimis, and poked with thousands upon thousands of urgent yet pointless instructions from the ether.

    We know we’re being watched, and you and me, both of us don’t think that the watchers have our best interest at heart. They try to mollify us, arguing that we’re being watched for our own good and that in fact we’re the ones in charge of the scale and scope of all the watching, but deep down most of us are confused and suspicious about this sudden state of affairs. Why are they watching us so closely?

    What will they do with all they learn about us? Is there any hope of stopping them? And does it even matter that we do not want to be watched – or is it of no consequence because they know you and me are trapped, and so do we?

    When a tech company captures an audience, it gets more than the opportunity to sell products and ideas to you and me. It also harvests the discretely quantified and collated bits of individual user data that you and I hand over, wittingly and unwittingly, as you and I stare at our computer and Smartphone screens. As valuable as this information is for what it reveals about our individual consumer habits and preferences, yours and my data are even more precious in the aggregate, as so-called big data, which can be used to predict political shifts, market trends, and even the public mood. It is said that “big data is the new oil”. But you and I are the data; the new oil is us. And unlike oil, we are a renewable resource. Who knows (through our data), win, as the old military adage goes – and this is equally true in the world of business. Watch the video, click the link, fill out the form – this is the labor that tech companies turn into profits. The people – you and me – who carry out this labor consider themselves customers, but we are also uncompensated workers. The process whereby eyeballs get turned into money is mysterious, but not totally opaque – just discouragingly complicated and boring.

    According to a survey of more than 4000 people conducted last summer by the Pew Research Center, it is the widespread sensibility of the day. Americans in 2019 feel adrift and powerless about living under the glare of digital surveillance. Two-thirds of Americans believe that surveillance is an inevitable consequence of modern existence – it is not possible to go through daily life, they say, without companies and the government collecting data about them. More than 70% believe that most or all of what they do online is being tracked, and nearly that many believe the same is true of what they do. And more than 80% feel like they have very little or no control over the data being collected about them. In some ways the numbers are unsurprising; of course people who are being watched all the time feel that they’re being watched all the time.

    No one so far really has shown much incentive to improve the quality, trustworthiness, or fairness of this new media ecosystem. The online monopolists, Google and Facebook, have grown too big to fail. They have in the meanwhile become so important to the fortunes of every other media business that in my opinion no one really wants to scream too loudly about the fraud problem lest they trigger landslide that wipes out their own fragile patched of turf.

    What you and me now need to realize, for publishers – a term of art that now in my opinion applies not only to media organizations but to almost any company that maintains a website, blog, or social media page – to adhere to a strict standard of lawful, ethical behavior is to almost commit commercial suicide – unless you and me would be willing to get charged for that standard. I am personally ready for that, if in return I get full control over my data. But Big Tech can’t do it – and here is why: If Big Tech platform companies clean all of the bots (ads that are “seen” only by automated computer programs) off their platforms, their click-through rates would drop. What that would mean is simple – their numbers are going down. And trust me if there’s anything corporate culture in Silicon Valley cannot tolerate, its numbers that go down. For them it’s all about getting the chart that goes up and there’s a whole industry devoted to making charts that go up.

    Silicon Valley is in my opinion the most brutal capitalistic machine there is.

    The strong get stronger and the weak get crushed.

    But how did this machine evolve? Here we go…

    Each tech boom began with a constant and a variable. The constant was easy financing, whether from government – subsidized borrowing or unsophisticated investors. The variable was whatever Silicon Valley was trying to sell at the time. In the early nineties, the boom was about hardware. IBM and Apple had found a way to commercialize military-funded (tax money) computer research by churning out personal desktop computers and accessories. Back then, Silicon Valley was small. It was focused almost exclusively on the technology with very little thought on how to market it.

    In the late nineties, came another commercial boom, also underwritten by government research (tax money): the Internet. But this time, something essential changed. Wall Street got involved. All of a sudden, Silicon Valley got the first taste of the big money. Certain venture capital funds, such as Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia, grew large and powerful – even more so after the bubble popped in 2000. The big dot-com crash cleared out the competition and almost Amazon with it. While industry down cycles drove lots of people out of business, the surviving players claimed even more ground and market share.

    the privatization once led by Clinton and Gore enabled the dot-com era of the 1990s as well as the bust that followed. Once more, the best – connected insiders emerge from the chaos in an even stronger position.

    The social media booms – which was called, for a while, Web 2.0, and closely followed by Google’s massive 2004 initial public offering (IPO). But certain things still hadn’t changed as the same old mix of government – subsidized research (tax money), cheap labor, and a regulatory outlook inherited from Ronald Reagan era that permitted corporations to unload the costs of doing business on customers, employees, taxpayers, and the ecosystem. Silicon Valley then had grown more volatile, more ruthless and ravenous for the blood of virgin entrepreneurs. The machine already so efficient, spinning so fast, that either you get crushed or you get in and are connected to everything – all at once.

    Google also rigged the results of its chief product, the search engine, while insisting the results were somehow algorithmically pure and beyond reproach, as a multiyear investigation by the European Commission concluded in 2017. Margrethe Vestager spent 5 years developing a in my opinion well-earned reputation as the world’s top tech industry watchdog.

    From her perch overseeing the European Union’s competition rules, she fined Google more than 9 billion US-Dollar for breaking antitrust laws.

    Eventually, the wheezing Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US launched an investigation and produced a report detailing Google’s practices. As reported by the Register, FTC’s political appointees cut a deal with Google instead. The terms called for Google to provide websites more opportunities to “opt out” of granting Google rights to certain copyrighted material while permitting it to carry on with the most controversial and profitable practice of promoting its own service above competitors.

    Let me put it my way: “Code is pure, politics is messy!”

    As Google grew, it also shrank – small enough to fit inside a mailbox in Bermuda, where it funneled 14 billion US-Dollar in annual profits via an intricate series of transatlantic shell companies that allowed Google to avoid an estimated 2 billion US-Dollar in taxes every year. That in my opinion is called capitalism 2.0. Google in my opinion always set a high bar for rule breaking that its Web 2.0 cousin, Facebook, tried mightily to surpass.

    Mark Zuckerberg already committed multiple violations of felony hacking laws in the early days of the company. As Facebook amassed data on millions and later billions of people, it started “monetizing” the information in unsavory ways. For instance, in 2015, Facebook began selling its customer data trove to banks and insurance companies, who might use it, among other ways, as a basis to deny services to poor people, minorities, and the disabled. Then there was the time Facebook ignored federal laws requiring “informed consent” in its secret behavioral experiments. The only reason anyone noticed was that the findings get published in a research journal. You can bet with me – Facebook won’t make that mistake again!

    Amazon, our “everything store”, may have benefited from the sale of unknown quantities of “gray market” and “e-fenced “goods that were allegedly counterfeit or stolen according to press reports. Furthermore, Amazon faced allegations of abuse of employment laws. Amazon’s salaried cubicle jockeys got it almost as bad as the warehouse temps, who were so overworked and toiled in such miserable conditions, that the company notoriously hired private paramedics to park their ambulances outside one of its facilities waiting to treat the next batch of employees who collapsed as a result of heat exhaustion. In Germany, Amazon hired menazing black-clad security guards employed by an outfit with neo – Nazi ties as modern-day Pinkertons to police its warehouse workers. And until the spring of 2017, founder Jeff Bezos (now the wealthiest man on earth) refused to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in sales taxes in many jurisdictions, thus starving state and local governments while furnishing extra cash to crush competition.

    Uber, in the early days, operated under the name of Uber-Cab, promoting itself as a “one-click” service to hire “licensed, professional drivers”- a misleading claim, as the company itself was unlicensed and recruited just anyone who happened to own a car. By classifying its drivers as “independent contractors” rather than employees, the company shrugged off the burden of minimum wage laws, payroll taxes, health insurance, and other obligations. This isn’t in my opinion any sharing economy – this is taking the responsibility of employment away from employers and putting it 100% on people’s backs. This brazen start-up Uber-Cab raised 50 million US-Dollar in several early investment rounds, then pressured state regulators and elected officials until its service was effectively legalized. With its “break law first, buy influence later” strategy proven, Uber’s next round raised an astonishing 258 million US-Dollar with the help from Google, which needed to “disrupt” the rules of the road if it hoped to gain approval for its driverless cars.

    All of these companies (please excuse my language) gave a flying fuck about the laws. That’s what made all of them as it seems so successful. Start-ups can offer deceptively low price points for consumers and higher profits for investors and Wall Street precisely because they do not follow the same rules as offline competitors – rules that were designed for the protection of investors and consumers alike.

    Now in Europe Miss Vestager has pledged to create the world’s first regulations around artificial intelligence (AI) and called for giving collective bargaining rights to so-called gig economy workers like Uber drivers.

    The push finally comes on top of an investigation into Amazon’s use of data to gain an edge on competitors that had already started, and her look into accusations of unfair business practices by Facebook and Apple. The latest was already fined 14.5 billion US-Dollar by the European Union for dodging taxes.

    Google – in the meantime restructured through a holding company called Alphabet – is most probably the world’s largest and most important tech company, with exceeding 150 billion US-Dollar in annual revenues, far more than 100,000 employees comprising the top graduates in computer science, engineering, business, psychology, and semiotics; and most importantly proprietary databases housing the archived private correspondence of some 500 million Gmail users – along with anyone who happens to email them -, plus detailed consumer behavioral profiles of many, many more Internet users; and a running log of whatever any one of those users happens to be thinking about at any given time, as evidenced by the individualized records of Web search queries, which Google’s vast network infrastructure processes at a rate of 40,000 every second.

    For some time, Google’s cars also spied on the Internet traffic of any unprotected wireless networks they happened to pass by – a practice called “war-driving”. In so doing, this mammoth corporation, which tracked its users’ behavior more efficiently and comprehensively than any totalitarian government in history, dispensed with the fig leaf of consent implicit in its one-sided “terms of service” agreement.

    We have to agree, what looked like another absurd example of American excess, a high-tech tulip mania, was actually a glimpse of something much more remarkable: a fundamental economic transformation, much like the one brought about by 2008 financial crisis. The Wall Street bailouts elicited by that crisis rendered the US government subservient to capital in ways not seen since the Great Depression, but the Web 2.0 unicorns pulled off a subtler, and potentially more consequential exploit by turning their ostensible customers like you into a source of invaluable data as well as free labor.

    Wall Street by no doubt rivals Silicon Valley for its sheer gaudy greed, but when it comes to madly grandiose ambition to dominate the universe, the techies have no peer. They are betting that future generations will look to them, the gadget peddlers – not governments – for bread, justice, and security. This is not so far-fetched, trust me. Tens of millions of Americans already are effectively citizens of Apple, citizens of Uber, citizens of Amazon. The policies of these corporations means as much to their daily lives as all the laws on the books, and their brand identities certainly inspire more loyalty than the national government most probably does these days. The tech tycoons’ carefully cultivated image as clear-eyed, hard-working problem-solvers in the frontier tradition supplies two things: Americans are desperate for first ‘validation’ and second ‘hope’. As a people, Americans are reared to be optimists. And they therefore in my opinion fail to understand something that seems so obvious to people from other parts of the world: as bad as things already are, they can always get worse.

    The scary thing in my opinion is that some inventions related for example to artificial intelligence, once unleashed cannot realistically be controlled. This is why decisions regarding the distribution and development of world-changing technologies cannot be left to the exclusive discretion of a few overconfident rich guys with Stanford pedigrees and shooting disregard for history, politics, language, and culture, to say nothing of the struggles of the poor.

    What you and me need is a new civil service, of top start-up quality, financed independently from Big Tech. The existing institutions are glaringly inadequate to address the problems of this moment, from ecological destruction to untenable levels of economic inequality. The stated ambitions of America’s tech oligarchs are almost comically solipsistic – endless lifespan, superhuman powers, and personal hyper-speed transport. They truly imagine themselves as a superior race.

    And while it is unlikely that they will attain everything they imagine, it is unfortunately true that this hyper-elite class will reap the benefits of any new technologies society develops, while the costs will fall, as ever, on the rest of us. This will – in my opinion – not be a situation without precedent.

    The tech companies still enjoy enormous financial success and have seen so far little impact from increasing scrutiny on their businesses. This suggests none of it really matters. We truly hate the way things are, but we have traded away our power to stop it, and our worries won’t change anything.

    Me personally, I don’t want to give up at this early stage. If you and me start joining hands and start building a “chain of change”, I am sure we can reach somewhere. You and me have to become the change we want to see.

    I certainly believe that creativity is an infinite resource. The more we spend the more we have. Let us support, create and develop platforms people love, let’s make it super easy for us to delete our accounts. Let us support platforms, where you and I have all the rights over our own personal data. Let us support revolutionary start-up companies’ people really want to work for, and make it super easy for them to leave such companies in case they seek other opportunities. Anything else in my opinion delays the inevitable.

    The story of money is simply repeating history can a different, more advanced and faster form. Disruption is the new order. The only constant is change.

    Let us never forget, reality is a historical process – tomorrow a mystical land where 98% of all human productivity, motivation and achievement is stored. Therefore, let us think about tomorrow and let us start joining hands today