From Aral Balkan, July 30:
Mariana Mazzucato1 has an article in MIT Technology Review titled Let’s make private data into a public good.
While Mariana’s criticisms of surveillance capitalism are spot on, her proposed remedy is as far from the mark as it possibly could be.
Yes, surveillance capitalism is bad
Mariana starts off by making the case, and rightly so, that surveillance capitalists2 like Google or Facebook “are making huge profits from technologies originally created with taxpayer money.”
Google’s algorithm was developed with funding from the National Science Foundation, and the internet came from DARPA funding. The same is true for touch-screen displays, GPS, and Siri. From this the tech giants have created de facto monopolies while evading the type of regulation that would rein in monopolies in any other industry. And their business model is built on taking advantage of the habits and private information of the taxpayers who funded the technologies in the first place.There’s nothing to argue with here. It’s a succinct summary of the tragedy of the commons that lies at the heart of surveillance capitalism and, indeed, that of neoliberalism itself.
Mariana also accurately describes the business model of these companies, albeit without focusing on the actual mechanism by which the data is gathered to begin with3:Here she is at Camp Alphaville in 2014 (moderator: FTAV's Dan McCrum):
Facebook’s and Google’s business models are built on the commodification of personal data, transforming our friendships, interests, beliefs, and preferences into sellable propositions. … The so-called sharing economy is based on the same idea.So far, so good.
But then, things quickly take a very wrong turn:
There is indeed no reason why the public’s data should not be owned by a public repository that sells the data to the tech giants, rather than vice versa.There is every reason why we shouldn’t do this.
Mariana’s analysis is fundamentally flawed in two respects: First, it ignores a core injustice in surveillance capitalism – violation of privacy – that her proposed recommendation would have the effect of normalising. Second, it perpetuates a fundamental false dichotomy – that there is no other way to design technology than the way Silicon Valley and surveillance capitalists design technology – which then means that there is no mention of the true alternatives: free and open, decentralised, interoperable ethical technologies.
No, we must not normalise violation of privacy
The core injustice that Mariana’s piece ignores is that the business model of surveillance capitalists like Google and Facebook is based on the violation of a fundamental human right. When she says “let’s not forget that a large part of the technology and necessary data was created by all of us” it sounds like we voluntarily got together to create a dataset for the common good by revealing the most intimate details of our lives through having our behaviour tracked and aggregated. In truth, we did no such thing.
We were farmed.
We might have resigned ourselves to being farmed by the likes of Google and Facebook because we have no other choice but that’s not a healthy definition of consent by any standard. If 99.99999% of all investment goes into funding surveillance-based technology (and it does), then people have neither a true choice nor can they be expected to give any meaningful consent to being tracked and profiled. Surveillance capitalism is the norm today. It is mainstream technology. It’s what we funded and what we built.
It is also fundamentally unjust.
There is a very important reason why the public’s data should not be owned by a public repository that sells the data to the tech giants because it’s not the public’s data, it is personal data and it should never have been collected by a third party to begin with. You might hear the same argument from people who say that we must nationalise Google or Facebook.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no! The answer to the violation of personhood by corporations isn’t violation of personhood by government, it’s not violating personhood to begin with.
That’s not to say that we cannot have a data commons. In fact, we must. But we must learn to make a core distinction between data about people and data about the world around us.
Data about people ≠ data about rocks
Our fundamental error when talking about data is that we use a single term when referring to both information about people as well as information about things....MUCH MORE
Lunch with the FT: Mariana Mazzucato
The first time I saw Mariana Mazzucato in action was when she intellectually eviscerated a guileless American venture capitalist at an economic conference in Italy. Anyone who has read Mazzucato’s book The Entrepreneurial State — or even glanced at her website — could have probably guessed it would be a bad idea to argue within her earshot that Silicon Valley’s success was due solely to brilliant entrepreneurs doing whizzy things.And many more.
But the venture capitalist was sloppy on his due diligence and was whacked by a formidable Mazzucato, brandishing a mass of data, sharply honed arguments — and a lot of attitude. In its way it was electrifying, especially if, as I do, you appreciate intellectual blood sports.
As professor in the Economics of Innovation at Sussex University, Mazzucato is much in demand on the international lecture circuit for her iconoclastic views about how wealth is generated and the public sector’s vital role in promoting innovation. She is as forthright in her opinions as she is eloquent in expressing them.
She chooses to meet at the Gilbert Scott restaurant in the renovated St Pancras hotel, right by the Eurostar rail terminal, close to her London home, and symbolic of her life of travel. It is a high-ceilinged affair, boasting massive iron light fittings, red banquettes, and grand paintings on its white walls. I arrive early and eavesdrop on a group of four businessmen talking about their favourite James Bond films. A few minutes later, Mazzucato strides towards our table, a tall, striking woman in a sharp blue trouser suit and purple top.....MUCH MORE