July 2, 2020: In 2018, rights activist, whistleblower and digital warrior Edward Snowden made a powerful remark on Twitter that sums up how the entire human race is being shepherded today by technology giants that we are in bed with.
Snowden tweeted, “Businesses that make money by collecting and selling detailed records of private lives were once plainly described as surveillance companies. Their rebranding as social media is the most successful deception since the Department of War became the Department of Defense.”
It was a truthful, thought-provoking, and uneasy remark.
Truthful – because Big Tech are indeed a bunch of private surveillance companies operating (or masquerading?) as innocuous, well-meaning platforms where the public can engage, socialise and broaden their network.
Thought-provoking – because the owners and promoters of Big Tech have branded their surveillance tools in such a crafty way that we don’t suspect they could be spying on us or collecting our data. After all, by using them, we hand over all our data on their platforms, in real-time.
And uneasy – because we need to be very, very afraid. Because what we know of Big Tech’s reach and role is only the tip of the iceberg. It is what we don’t know that should worry us more.
THOUGHTS ARE COLONISED
The rise of ‘data colonialism’ or ‘surveillance capitalism’ is not new. It’s been happening for years. It’s, however, become a relevant subject for Indians these days.
India is engaged in an escalating standoff with China and Indians have woken up to the welcome prospect of breaking free from the clutches of invasive Chinese capitalism. But as we gear up to boycott Chinese products, it’s important that we understand there’s yet another major front on which the Indian public has been colonised and needs to act – it is the colonisation of their mind space by international Big Tech brands.
Brands that are adored, trusted and worshipped. Brands that have ballooned into modern religions. Brands such as…
…just to name a few. There are many, many other brands that we believe we cannot live without.
Take Alphabet, for example. The California-headquartered digital powerhouse has an online search engine (Google Search), an internet browser (Chrome), an email service (Gmail), a navigation system (Google Maps), a payment platform (Google Pay), a video-sharing platform (YouTube) among other services.
A deep study will tell you that with the search queries that we key in every day, with the data footprint we leave behind on its browser, with the confidential content that we upload into our emails, with the travel trail we imprint on its map app, with the personalised location-centric video footage we share as we travel, with the music download and share – Google is in possession of literally most things on our mind – it has the master key to our thoughts.
Anything that comes to your mind – chance are that Google will have access to it.
Millions of us unsuspectingly hand over our precious data to this private entity. By doing so, we have signed up to let Google colonise our mind space.
It’s the same story with Facebook, although the occasional exposure of scandals like Cambridge Analytica have helped shed light on the cracks in the California-based social media platform’s armour. From our habits, tastes, likes and dislikes, to where we hang out, to things we take an interest in, Facebook has a firm grip on every single aspect of our social lives, and through that, our mind.
Of course, it’s our fault too that we serve the company on a platter data about our personal and private lives. Mark Zuckerberg is well-known to be at the helm of a brand that has the deepest access to our thoughts, and it’s no secret that the social network has colonised our mind space.
Now take the examples of Amazon and Alibaba. Amazon is a Seattle-based ecommerce platform, while Alibaba is a Chinese ecommerce giant founded in Zhejiang. Thanks to our high frequency of ordering household products (often non-essential) on these two platforms, they are in possession of vitally precious data, such as our purchasing habits and patterns, our tastes and preferences, how we react to offers, what we like to spend our money on, which industries we ignore and which ones we don’t – the list just goes on.
While we bleed such invaluable data – and our precious thoughts – onto these two platforms, Amazon and Alibaba, again, can be assumed to have colonised what’s on our mind. They know how deep our pockets are; they perhaps know better than us what products and services we are likely to spend on in the coming weeks!
It’s the same story with WhatsApp, a messaging platform that was bought by Facebook in 2014, micro-blogging app Twitter, online reference platform Wikipedia, image-sharing app Instagram, video-sharing app TikTok, and super-brands like Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Uber, Ola, which have all captured our attention and colonised our mind space through their so-called essential products and services.
As these ‘thought hunters’ groom us into expressing our deepest thoughts on their platforms, privacy has cleverly been turned into a taboo.
There can be no thought that’s private. A thought that’s not posted or shared on social media, or not typed into a Big Tech gadget, is not a thought!
You’ve got to think online – that’s the deal you can’t afford to refuse. If your thoughts aren’t online, you’re deemed uncool!
THOUGHTS ARE MONOPOLISED, MISUSED
As we look at Big Tech through the glasses of suspicion, it’s worth revisiting important milestones. The most well-known case that comes to mind is the Cambridge Analytica scandal mentioned earlier.
Cambridge Analytica, a British political consultancy firm, had bought from Facebook data of millions of unsuspecting American citizens in order to create a “psychological warfare tool”. The firm had used that data to influence American voters to pick Donald Trump as president in the 2016 US election.
The fallout of the scandal – once the matter was exposed – was dramatic. Facebook banned Cambridge Analytica, but by then the damage had been done. Thoughts that were monopolised had been compromised.
Facebook has been under pressure over several other privacy concerns, such as the use of its controversial automatic facial recognition software and its presumed vault of indefinite records of all types of user data.
Giants like Alphabet’s Google and Facebook’s WhatsApp, too, have faced the music over privacy concerns. It was only last month that France’s top administrative court upheld a 56-million-dollar fine that was slapped on Google last year for violating the European Union’s privacy laws.
Or take the case of WhatsApp, easily the world’s most popular messaging platform. It’s the one platform where we share our deepest thoughts, and the most personal of opinions and visuals.
It suffered such a major data breach in November last year that it’s new downloads in India nosedived over a certain period of time.
As a counter-argument, one may cast doubts if Big Tech alone should be held responsible for breaches and leaks. But then why allow a situation to develop in the first place in which very few tech companies grab control of much of the world’s data? Historically, monopolies have never benefited the masses. No reason that monopolisation of thoughts and private data will be any different.
THOUGHTS ARE DATA
In 2019, Nick Couldry and Ulises Alí Mejías came up with a book The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating it for Capitalism. It’s a work that addresses the crisis of data colonialism at the hands of a few monopolistic Big Tech brands. In their powerful book, they draw parallels between modern-day data colonialism and old-school colonialism from the days of imperialism.
On the website of their book The Costs of Connection, the authors say, “In data colonialism, data is appropriated through a new type of social relation: data relations… Data colonialism is global, dominated by powerful forces in East and West, in the US and China. The result is a world where, wherever we are connected, we are colonised by data.
“Where is data colonialism heading in the long term? Just as historical colonialism paved the way for industrial capitalism, data colonialism is paving the way for a new stage of capitalism whose outlines we only partly see: the capitalisation of life without limit. There will be no part of human life, no layer of experience, that is not extractable for economic value.”
THOUGHTS ARE THE NEW OIL
An article published in The Economist in 2017 (Fuel of the future Data is giving rise to a new economy) points to why the fundamental scramble for data by Big Tech is such a big deal. The article says, “Data are to this century what oil was to the last one: a driver of growth and change. Flows of data have created new infrastructure, new businesses, new monopolies, new politics and – crucially – new economics.”
It’s been a long time since India’s ‘physical colonisers’ from the past have been shown the door – powerhouses (or let’s say parasites) such as the British Raj and the East India Company. But the tentacles of colonialism have come back to haunt us, slithering around our necks while we are engrossed in diligently turning our privacy (and our precious thoughts) into instantly accessible data packets.
You may raise a pertinent question: So what?
So what if our mind space is tapped into?
So what if our thoughts and our information are colonised?
The answer is as simple and as truthful as it is incredible: Our consciousness is a virtual gold mine for data colonisers or thought capitalists. The more we think, the more we express what we think. And when we express what we think on their digital platforms, they collect our expressed thoughts, process them into data packets that can be monetised, and trade them off.
In simple words, we think and they profit from it. Hence, the question of raising objections.
Thought capitalists get the raw materials for free (our thoughts that we willingly hand over to them on their platforms), turn them into finished products, and then sell them in the grand supermarket of Big Data and (dis)information.
The more we stay glued to the tempting platforms of Big Tech, the more the noose of thought colonialism will tighten around our necks.
But that noose will not choke us yet, because thought capitalists need to feed off our thoughts – our thoughts are their gold – and they want us to breathe easy and continue thinking.
Big Tech has colonised the space in the six inches between your ears. They have created a situation where we can make thought capitalism and thought colonisation cease to exist only if we all stop thinking altogether!
But actually there’s a genuine way to cut loose from the octopus of Big Tech ‘data-giri’. If we gang up and decide to de-gadget our conversations and restore privacy back into our discourses and thoughts, Big Tech will be left high and dry.
Time to think about it.
(The above article is an Empire Diaries opinion piece)
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