It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

Alternatives to the surveillance-advertising industrial complex

It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

How Tech Platforms Could Change

Zeynep Tufekci, writing in the January issue of Wired, proposes some alternatives to tech platforms' micro-targeting ad business and the surveillance that enables it. She begins by citing Jeffrey Hammerbacher. Hammerbacher built Facebook's Data Team before leaving the company in 2008, and shared this lament at his departure: "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks."

"Sure, raking in all this personal user data is convenient. Lead is also a great ingredient in paint."

That does suck. Clicking ads doesn't necessarily have to suck, though. They can be served based on relevant keywords and other search criteria. Search upstart DuckDuckGo serves ad this way (just as Google used to).

Tufekci offers two alternatives to the current surveillance-advertising industrial complex:

1. Paid Services

People pay for dozens of essential and useful services already. If a Facebook or Google have real value, people will pay for them. There's no reason why a low subscription fee coupled with ethical non-invasive advertising couldn't work for these companies. They may not want to change, but if regulations forced them to, they would survive.

Tufekci also notes that a paid subscription to Facebook could be dramatically lower than the fee charged by content producers like Netflix. Facebook, after all, gets all of its "content" from users themselves — for free.

2. Crytographic Databases

Google and Facebook could give us the same products and services we want by looking to and investing in crytopgrahic databases These are "systems that might allow platforms to perform operations on data without ever decrypting it," thus protecting users privacy. This would be similar to the processes Apple uses to encrypt and anonymize user data on its products.

I don't relish throwing away the benefits and advantages I receive from tech giants like Google and Facebook, et al. But it doesn't have to be this way. Tufekci's lead paint metaphor is instructive:

Sure, raking in all this personal user data is convenient. Lead is also a great ingredient in paint: It’s anticorrosive, it helps coats dry faster, and it increases moisture resistance. But we outlawed lead in paint anyway, for reasons that now seem chillingly obvious. We can do the same for data surveillance.


I'm currently going through Neil Postman's Technopoly and Tufekci's observations on tech giant practices square well with Postman's expectations of technopolies.

Technopolies, which, in 1992, Postman believed America was fast becoming, tend to hold to the following as doctrines:

Technopoly: “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.”
— Neil Postman
  • “the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency”
  • “technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment”
  • “human judgment cannot be trusted because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity”
  • “subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking”
  • “what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value”
  • “the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”

The roots of Big Data were quite clearly seeded in this thinking, which developed through the 20th century and has only accelerated. L.M. Sacasas observes that Postman views these doctrine as a kind of "technological theology".

In other words, while traditional theologies which governed tool-using cultures are displaced in a technocracy, in a Technolopy a governing ideology in the mode of theology is reintroduced to order society. The function of theology has not been eradicated, it has just been reconfigured, which rather reminds me of a Dylan tune:

"But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed You’re gonna have to serve somebody Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord But you’re gonna have to serve somebody."

I'll leave the applications to you.

And I'll leave you to consider exactly what divine realities our vaunted techno-priests are mediating for us, here below.

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