Zuck's Empire of Oily Rags

Cambridge Analytica didn't convince decent people to become racists; they convinced racists to become voters:

Facebook isn't a mind-control ray. It's a tool for finding people who possess uncommon, hard-to-locate traits, whether that's "person thinking of buying a new refrigerator," "person with the same rare disease as you," or "person who might participate in a genocidal pogrom," and then pitching them on a nice side-by-side or some tiki torches, while showing them social proof of the desirability of their course of action, in the form of other people (or bots) that are doing the same thing, so they feel like they're part of a crowd. [...]

It's as though Mark Zuckerberg woke up one morning and realized that the oily rags he'd been accumulating in his garage could be refined for an extremely low-grade, low-value crude oil. No one would pay very much for this oil, but there were a lot of oily rags, and provided no one asked him to pay for the inevitable horrific fires that would result from filling the world's garages with oily rags, he could turn a tidy profit.

A decade later, everything is on fire and we're trying to tell Zuck and his friends that they're going to need to pay for the damage and install the kinds of fire-suppression gear that anyone storing oily rags should have invested in from the beginning, and the commercial surveillance industry is absolutely unwilling to contemplate anything of the sort.

That's because dossiers on billions of people hold the power to wreak almost unimaginable harm, and yet, each dossier brings in just a few dollars a year. For commercial surveillance to be cost effective, it has to socialize all the risks associated with mass surveillance and privatize all the gains.

There's an old-fashioned word for this: corruption. In corrupt systems, a few bad actors cost everyone else billions in order to bring in millions -- the savings a factory can realize from dumping pollution in the water supply are much smaller than the costs we all bear from being poisoned by effluent. But the costs are widely diffused while the gains are tightly concentrated, so the beneficiaries of corruption can always outspend their victims to stay clear.

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One Response:

  1. bq Mackintosh says:

    Years on, I remain utterly baffled that the "value proposition" of Facebook even lands with people at all. "We're willing to improve the relevancy of your ads if you…" and already I'm like, Hang on, since when are non-relevant ads a problem that needs to be solved? "There is an ad for coffee in my media but I don't even drink coffee, won't someone fix this for me?" is a question nobody has ever asked.

    And yet, so many earnest and otherwise sober-minded discussions occur as if providing ad relevancy is, you know, worthy of sitting solo on one side of a value equivalence. "Better ads" is like saying "keener headaches."

    I know, I know. Old man, yelling at cloud.

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