I am a believer in capitalism, always have been. Free markets are paragons of efficiency and optimization. However, in a perfectly free market some industries will thrive on competition and others will drift into monopoly. A monopoly is not always a bad thing. In some cases it is necessary to optimise the product being sold. However, optimal efficiency is not always a good thing.
The internet has the potential to afford businesses and consumers something that eluded both groups since the beginning of time. Perfect information, a market condition whereby all consumers and producers have perfect knowledge of price, utility, quality and production methods of products. The problem however, is one of volume.
The human brain is of course not capable of processing, retaining and sorting the sheer volume of information required to reach this state. We needed a filter, a way to sift through endless reams of data to find the one answer we require. We finally found the thing that was going to set us free from the information gatekeepers of old, and immediately had to yield to new curators and cataloguers.
After a few years clear pack leaders began to emerge in each of these fields. As each grew their rate of growth became exponential, much like the internet itself. We ceded privacy, humility and anonymity as we fed the beast’s never-ending hunger for information. We all began shouting into the void, and these companies adapted to better encourage this behaviour. They appealed to our species greatest driver. Ego
Social media was born.
The mistake most people make when addressing the issue of Google, Facebook et al, is the assumption that the end-user is the customer. After all, you are consuming their products, you are signing up for accounts on one of their platforms, you are the end-user. But you’re not a paying customer. You’re not filling their coffers directly. If tomorrow you stopped using Gmail, YouTube or Google search, it would not hurt them. You are a tiny, infinitely replaceable component in a gargantuan machine.
If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.
Google makes its real money selling its users’ views to advertisers and analyzing your data for those same advertisers in order to weaponize the former. An obvious statement no doubt, and yet Google’s users still act as consumers. They feel they have the same rights and entitlements as consumers. There’s a reason that Twitter, for example, doesn’t give you a reason when they ban you. They don’t want to have an argument they don’t need to have.
Here’s the rub, organizations like Google or Facebook are “natural monopolies”. These businesses run on data. The bigger and more integrated the install base, the more accurately they can tailor the service to suit consumer needs. Predictions become more accurate, search results more readily reflect the needs of the searcher, workflows become shorter and life becomes “easier”.
That’s how they get you in the end. Not through bribery, not through making your life objectively better or inspiring you to strive for greatness. They corrupt you with convenience. They make you comfortable, free up your time and then find a myriad of ways to fill it back up again. They build a web and watch as you wrap yourself up in it. Before long you are no longer using these products to free up time. You are reliant on them in order to keep up.
Imagine creating the ultimate surveillance tool and somehow getting people to willingly participate in being monitored. Think about the type and volume of information the average person releases through their social media profiles. They check in at locations, geotag photos, talk privately to friends and family, and announce the major events in their lives.
We all freaked out at the idea of the government listening in on phone calls or accessing our search histories. Stop for a moment and think about the kind of access Google has to your life, your secrets, and your thought processes. Now start to think about the kind of scale these companies are reaching. A handful of (primarily) U.S. companies hold more data on populations all over the world than their own governments.
We see this play out on one of the smaller monopolies, Twitter. Here’s an experiment to try at home. Spend one week using Twitter without clicking on any hashtags, just your feed and your mentions. Keep a tally of how many opposing opinions come up over the course of that week. If it’s more than 5% of the content you see, congratulations, you are more open-minded than the average Twitter user.
Whether by design or by happenstance the very nature of Twitter’s UI is it creates self-segregation. The information you encounter is determined entirely by the specific accounts you follow. In fact, the system is often at its most fractious when users specifically seek out opposing viewpoints. (See the various reporting/trolling crews.)
In human endeavours fractiousness is necessary to move the conversation forward. Those who control these platforms do not want this to happen. They’ve built their ecosystems and natural selection would leave them vulnerable. They have ways of making the bad thoughts disappear.
One of the wonders of the internet is the ability to catalogue and collect information that lacks the level of demand to make physical production runs viable. A blog that appeals to 100 dedicated followers simply would not be possible in print, but as data taking up a tiny fraction of one server it can be accessed around the globe. Perfect distribution. One problem exists however, it needs to be found. In days gone by, in times of regime change, books would often be burnt when they conflicted with the current narrative. They had to be erased in case someone was to find them. These days you don’t need to touch the book to get rid of it. You can hide it from search results, pull hosting, or DDoS the site hosting it. You make dissenting ideas go away long before they get a chance to gain traction. Because these companies are the conduits for news as well as content delivery, they can ensure word never gets out.
So, what do we have?
A handful of monopolistic monoliths with perfect information on us and the ability to manipulate the information we get to access. Just as the news corporations of old controlled the message because most people didn’t have the time to research direct sources themselves, so too have the Silicon Valley tech giants. Only this time, it’s not just the news…they are reaching into every aspect of our lives. They have the data, the co-operation and the scale to create the perfect skinner box. They control the production, distribution, sale and archiving of all information. They control the platforms through which any kind of organic movement/cultural shift could take place. They can push the ideas they want to see succeed and they are constantly learning.
I can assure you of one thing, there will never be another Alt Right. They arrogantly allowed it to gestate because they felt that control was absolute. Hillary was going to win, and the left-wing agenda would keep on rolling. The media gave them attention by mocking them, the internet gave them a delivery mechanism for their message. But as stated, these companies learn. You can bet every single one of them have a dedicated team studying the rise of the Alt Right and looking at the significant beats that propelled them into a genuine political force in America.
Welcome to the world of single-use tactics. Strength will not win this war and adaptability is the key.
You cannot directly attack these companies because of their scale. When you operate in more nations than the UN, with a customer base in the billions, a few thousand people boycotting your free products is not even going to break the skin. The power of these companies rival the strongest world governments, and you can bet each company has the other’s ear in many cases. Nothing short of a nationwide revolution would be enough to force them to change. But of course, as stated, they control the platforms a person would use to instigate such a revolution, they control the means of searching it out, they control the means of content distribution, and of course, the funding platforms that would allow a person to build a movement full-time.
However, as with all boss battles they have a weak spot. One they are rapidly moving to secure; the DNS registrars and hosting companies. Google may be a MASSIVE organisation and utterly impenetrable, but the registrars that service these companies often aren’t.
I respect what Andrew Torba is doing with GAB, but once again ego gets the better of men who could be great. Going after Google as an attempt to set precedent may seem like it’s striking a blow against those who would see free speech disappear, but it lacks clarity.
For one it will be a LONG drawn out battle. While GAB is tied up with the case Google will palm it off to their army of lawyers, they will not skip a beat. A site’s growth may be limited by being denied an app in the Play Store, but it will not be cut off completely.
Without a site GAB is nothing.
Instra is not Google, they do not have their money, their scale or their influence. They are the weak link in the chain, FOR NOW.
Here’s an idea to end on…What if GAB investors and pro account holders were to file a class action lawsuit against Instra? If you want to set precedent, pick a fight you can win and consolidate from there. Pick better targets.
If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them
– Isaac Asimov
Pave Darker is a political activist and contributor to New Media Central. You can follow him on Twitter @darkpaver