It is strange to be 20,000 words into a novel about the last week of August 1939, and Poland, and between bursts of creativity and isolated concentration, to be listening to and reading news which talks of Fascism, a coup, dictatorship and more. Two and a half minutes to midnight – closer than in 1939, I’m sure.  It is strange to drive through flood waters to the wildly windy castle ruins where the Irish defended themselves against the English, and to listen to news about hard borders and the dissolution of fragile unions which advocate freedom and human rights.  We’re all viscerally engaged, enraged, dumbfounded, disempowered, emasculated.  We don’t sleep for dreams of destruction.  We’re still shocked that others want something less fair and reasonable than our picture of democracy, and yet we, or people like us, have moved towards, if not chosen, this.  And those we chose have failed to get us to a place of greater safety.

You say he is the perfect answer to our needs.  How can we appreciate what it is to be human, humane, caring, inclusive, egalitarian without something so gross and easy to characterise to rebel against?  How can we stand up to this abuse without a groundswell, a tidal wave of reaction?  Most people seem to believe that public opinion will be enough to defend justice against the insidious manoeuvres which bring evil to power.  We’d like to believe that profit-driven enterprises with inestimable power to re-direct opinion are going to choose reason over profit and power, that we won’t be Facebooked into a corner, press-ganged into misunderstandings. Didn’t I read that Zuckerberg is considering running for election in 2024?

We can respond with peaceful protest, which might feel like punching sponge.  We can respond with violence, which will prompt that defensive aggression just waiting to be unleashed in the name of national security. We can invoke laws and treaties and pacts and watch them being dismantled and over-ruled, or just plain ignored. We can wait and hope. We can turn off the news and bury our heads in the sand, until these howling winds blow it all away, and we wake up in a different world, or we just don’t wake up at all.

I read today that Facebook values each user at $20 per year. That may be a figure for US users, but it will do for now. The $20 is dwarfed by our value to Google, which makes about six times as much ad revenue from its users, so perhaps we average $120 per year on Google. If you search for information on something expensive (like a rare drug for your life-threatening disease) then your value to Google jumps enormously, as they sell your details to the vendors and you get deluged with ads for rare drugs.

So for Facebook, there are 1,600,000,000 users worldwide – one in six people on earth. That’s 1.6 billion people’s personality profiles, demography, geography, habits, personal history and preferences divided into the amount of advertising revenue generated, I guess. Each person is, of course, only targeted with a tiny proportion of all the advertising FB carries – after all, why would I want to see ads right wing political organisations in America, for instance? That means our value can be split among those advertisers whose suggested posts and FB Ads clutter up our news feed.  When I advertise my small business, I pay about 30-40 cents per click through to my site, and as little as about 0.01 cents per ‘impression’ – the chance to put my promotion in front of someone on their screen, albeit for the moment it takes for them to scroll past it. My moment of exposure takes place during each user’s half-hour a day spent wading thought the poo that occupies most of FB – those fatuous videos and viral platitudes. Viral refers to infectious spreading…

So, about 30 minutes per day of each person’s attention. But I assume that $20 is annual, so we’re each effectively earning 10.9 cents per hour for Facebook and in return we’re getting lots of garbage interspersed with personally useful, sometimes valuable, insights and connections.  Would you pay 5.5 cents per day to use Facebook if you didn’t EVER have your personal information stored, or used to sell you things?  If the average number of searches I make on Google is 10 per day, then I’m worth 3.2 cents per search to them in ad revenue.  Assuming they alter the results of every search I make, based on who wants to advertise to me, then for that 3.2 cents, I’m getting distortions to the ‘truth’ of what’s available on and through the internet. My searches and your searches using the same search criteria produce different results.  Would you pay 3.2 cents per search to have the results untainted? Do you really want to see the same world I see?

So let’s say we all agree that paying for the internet is better than being controlled by it. Can you reverse what has become established as a currency? Your identity in exchange for free access to a substitute for personal interaction, free access to some parody of reality?  Would you switch if you could?  After all, it’s only a matter of them offering you a choice – the advertising model or the subscription model – micro-bill me for ‘pay-as-you-go’ truth or spoon-feed me the bigoted pap for free.

Hang on.  This blog is not personal interaction – it’s a diatribe spouted in the privacy of my own head. But once I press ‘publish’, it’s linked to my social media, and FB and Twitter lead people to read it, and those people might comment, and so it becomes a social, not to say personal, interaction of sorts.  I have communicated with my Friends (not to say friends) for a fee which I haven’t paid in cash but in identity exploitation.  Let’s say the extract of this blog post is read by 100 Friends on their news feeds – that being a proportion of everyone who links to me – the rest either skip over it, or more likely don’t go onto FB at the right time of day to have it in the top eighteen inches of stuff they’re prepared to wade through in their 30 minutes.  Now suppose I boost this post, so that I am buying the exposure to a much larger audience of people whose thinking I want to influence.  Maybe they’re undecided voters in an election, or political extremists in their closets waiting for guidance.  Do the algorithms vet my intentions and assess my advertising worth?  Do they apply their own ‘political weighting’ to the import of my message?  I’m going to sway voters towards a regime that supports low corporate tax rates. I’m going to engage sufferers from expensive diseases to follow my blog – now that’s going viral!  My value to FB and Google might go up so much that they’re prepared to give me free exposure, rather than me having to pay for it… hang on, that’s what they’re already doing in listing ‘top stories’ over ‘most recent’ stories on peoples’ walls, and in manipulating the Google rankings.

Maybe I’ll de-couple from this technology and write hand-written letters which I’ll post to my friends (not to say Friends) and that will generate revenue for An Post which will ensure that the postman keeps his job and spends his hard-earned in the economy and his income taxes will underwrite the Irish infrastructure, and An Post will make profits which will attract corporation taxes within the country, rather than in the cloud which Google and FB occupy. Maybe I will re-gain my identity control. Maybe not.

On human value

The question I have is: what is human value in the modern world? I’m not trying to measure the importance of a life, the amount of love or hate it takes to weigh someone, but I’m asking how we equate the value of people as units of tradable commodity in the cyberspace society we spend more and more time in, and how relevant or acceptable this currency is? Advertisers can now bid on my ‘eyes’ in the micro-seconds between my choosing to visit a site and it opening in my browser, based on how relevant my eyes are to their market, based on my online behaviour and profile. If they like me enough, at the right price, I get served their message. If not, someone else does. That isn’t me as an individual, it’s me as a unit of currency. In fact, the word currency sort of means ‘relevance now’…

How about Facebook’s Likes and Friends, traded as a cybercurrency that devalues the real world, replacing offline concepts of friendship and liking people. No? I think so. The problem with both the words Friend and Like, is that the Facebook process of linking people without their consent simply by computer-driven association has destroyed their original meaning for the online world. The ‘clicks’ sweatshops of Bangladesh or Uruguay which pay miniscule amounts of money to people to set up FB accounts and Like specific clients’ sites, devalues even the paltry personal ‘Friends’ likes. And now we can even auto-emote when we like a post. And for all those self-righteous conscientious objectors who aren’t on FB, think about the 1.2 billion people who are and feel superior.
However, FB doesn’t see us as its customers. We are its currency, and through sophisticated analysis of our characteristics, we are its tradable value, and we have helped it to become so valuable it can ‘launder’ this income by buying almost any company it wishes, building itself into a monolyth with immense power. Alongside FB are Google, Twitter and Yahoo, and a much longer ‘B’ list. Their process of evaluating us, using our predictable behaviour and exploiting it for wealth and power is well known and understood. But it’s only just begun. Once Apple’s watch reports on our unconscious physiological responses 24/7 (galvanic skin response while feeling positive or negative towards someone for instance, heart-rate when shopping?) and links this to an advertising model which push technology allows, we’ll all be teased with “Go on, you know you fancy her, and I can tell you she fancies you – she’s got a raised heart-rate” texts, or maybe we just have the phone on vibrate in our trousers pocket!
There is an argument that we should be paid ‘license fees’ for use of our information, and we should be able to opt in and opt out of the game. But anyone who uses a computer and the internet doesn’t have that choice, unless you’re a lawyer used to reading the small print of Google’s T&Cs when you download Chrome or whatever.
Some people see the targeting as good for their lives, and are happy to sacrifice privacy in exchange for the ‘help’ of a software agent which acts as personal adviser by filtering the information they receive. When I say ‘some people’ I think I mean most people in their teens or twenties who have grown up knowing how to find things out, rather than knowing things, who’ve passed on the responsibility for truth to Google.
Others are fighting rearguard and possibly hopeless battles to avoid being ‘classified and stored’. When I say ‘Others’ I’m referring to an increasingly small group of off-liners and paranoid techies.
SO what is going to happen and what do we care?
Here’s a few things to add to the pot (flavouring?)
1. We all exhibit physical, historic and indisputable characteristics which are recorded either with our own knowledge and consent (eg our weight), or by law (eg our date of birth) or perhaps through non-directive methods (eg we are photographed, our fingerprints are captured) in which case our knowledge and consent are (deemed) not necessary.
2. We exhibit behavioural characteristics in public or online which are effectively deemed ‘in the public domain’ or at the very least, in someone else’s domain (eg Facebook). This data does not belong to the individual once he or she has signed up to the service.
3. Information about us is captured in a non-directive fashion, in our everyday lives through our habits (eg shopping receipts, CCTV) and increasingly through our interaction with everyday objects (cash machine, mobile phone) and through the use of sophisticated algorithms or Pattern Recognition Data Agents, we are profiled. These Data Agents are becoming pervasive and soon we will be able to buy web-enabled everyday objects, even disposable ones, such as packaging, which will ensure that the data capture is universal. Will our bedsheets report on our sex lives, our toilet rolls on our bowel movements and tears?
4. This data is stored for groups and populations allowing normative statistics to be produced, and allowing individual divergence to be recorded. Are you part of the normal distribution, or are you ‘on the edge of social norms? How do you feel about being in or out of the fold? In principle, all databases are made up of individual profiles and can be drilled for personal information, but usually, this is not what pays for their creation… or is it? LinkedIn operates a personalised revenue model for recruitment, one of its main income earners, not an advertising model for group targeting like Facebook operates. Undoubtedly, the individual profile information is a tradable commodity for law enforcement, creditworthiness, employee vetting, and potentially for insurability. But will we be able to buy it for dating sites, for spying? Sure Snowdon has a clear view on that.
5. We’re moving from Web 2 to Web 3 right now. Web 3.0 could be defined as: “A supposed third generation of Internet-based services that collectively comprise what might be called ‘the intelligent Web’ — such as those using semantic web, microformats, natural language search, data-mining, machine learning, recommendation agents, and artificial intelligence technologies — which emphasize machine-facilitated understanding of information in order to provide a more productive and intuitive user experience.” Lost?
Have you got a smart phone which reminds you that you’re going to be late for that meeting if you don’t leave home now, because there’s a traffic jam on the road you’ll be taking? Do you get offered things you like, because you’ve bought things like them before?
In the Web 3 environment where inter-related (mashed up) databases create multivariate analyses of populations and groups, various aspects of our lives can be mapped and modelled and group charateristics defined. This is the source of predictive modeling for behaviour and the resurgence of psychographics provides a core tool in Big Data.
6. The ‘people who bought this also like these’ widget demonstrates massive efficiencies in sifting the world’s stimulae. It both limits/stereotypes us and helps us through the maze. The core of each cluster is very cohesive, and at its fringes, it is blurred into the next. You only have to see what books you’re offered on Amazon to know that after the first 20 or 50, they become less ‘similar’
7. We are automatically selected to belong to a group or not (or some gradation of this) based on correlation co-efficients and on this basis, the selection of information provided to us is controlled. This is called ontology. The maths pass no value judgement on which group one fits into, unlike humans who apply ‘weights’ based on their own prejudices, only on how closely one’s characteristics match one group’s or another’s. Fine, but what happens when an algorithm decides who is an extremist and who is not – who is a person of interest and who is not? And in the world of artificial intelligence, where everyone sets objectives for machines which ‘decide’ how to act in order to achieve those objectives, we’re not going to be judged humanely, mercifully. Seen Ex Machina?
8. The variety of factors which can be included in multivariate analysis is increasing exponentially. It is no longer simply demographics, reported behaviour and ‘stated attitudes’ which are fed into the number-cruncher, but also longitudinal non-directive tracking of behaviour (location, speed of movement etc), and in future it will include subliminal/biological responses (eg radiant heat patterns, GSR, heart-rate and blood sugar levels etc)
9. Ontologies, or clusters are automatically generated, and can be named by people who evaluate them and ‘brand them’ (Generation Y, Yuppies etc) but they exist without being named, and we recognise them quickly, because that is how humans make decisions – predicting the behaviour of individuals by associating them (pigeon-holing) with approximate stereotypes. Every moment we decide how someone might act, based on their physiognomy, or their context, their non-verbal communication and so on.
10. In the main, these online databases and analyses are centralised, in the hands of the largest suppliers of commercial goods and services (eg Google). These organisations employ Consumer Insights Managers to use the outputs of these Big Data tools to build marketing campaigns which more and more finely target individuals in small groups, based on prediction of behaviour. Hell, marketing is about customer engagement, and nobody wants to be treated as one of the masses. Individualisation of campaigns will be characterised by ad boxes which alter as you walk past them, showing items which only you might want. Remember that ’70s classic, Fahrenheit 451, and the TV show which allowed each viewer to choose the ending they wanted by pressing the button?
11. This ‘Semantic Web’, in which various aspects of humanity can be cross-analysed against various others to establish predictions of normative behaviour, which in turn can be cross-matched against individual responses, will become increasingly accessible through Open Policy Networks. These OPNs will allow us to conduct our own analyses, to include our own database tools in our own websites. They are driven by the democratic/socialist principles that everyone has a right to share in this new power, and protected by the warmhearted belief that we can somehow license our data for use or not. The battle lines between centralised control (big brother) in the hands of increasingly powerful global commercial groups and distributed control often in the hands of ‘disruptive innovation’ groups like the Bitcoin movement is evolving.
12 One more dimension. A new technology called CRISPR allows chromosomes to be cut and repaired to remove and replace specific genes. Sounds very ‘laboratory’ scifi, but it’s worth noting that not only can you buy a home CRISPR kit online (not sure whether it works, but at $130 a pop, might be worth reprogramming the kids) but this has to be seen in the context of Intel’s new DNA-based chips which will replace silicon chips soon. Too much science for my ignorant rant, but read up on both and you’ll see that Web 3 and AI and genome science are converging.