Everything is Connected

This is the twenty-third in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Investigative reporter Nafeez Ahmed is looking into the abyss and what he sees is crisis compounding crisis: climate change, global economic meltdown, food shortages. Each crisis is so cataclysmic, and the science behind each so specialised, that it is difficult to understand the complex connections between them. “It’s created this very serious problem that we’re underestimating the scale of the problems we’re facing,” Nafeez says. “We’re always playing catch up trying to understand how these things work.”

For example, in the last couple of years, the rate of global warming increase has slowed, resulting in a “global warming pause”. “This was predicted by the models,” Nafeez says, “but what wasn’t predicted was how much heat would be stored by the oceans. At some point that’s going to be released.” When it is, the rise in atmospheric temperature won’t simply cause a single crisis for the agriculture of the tomato; it will trigger crises throughout every aspect of human existence, many of which are unforeseeable.

It almost makes you look back fondly on an age when we knew less. Science today means that we know enough to know that we’re in big trouble, but not enough to understand exactly how these interconnected crises will dictate the future of the human race and what we can do to influence that future. Ignorance was bliss. Perhaps the ultimate crisis we face today is a crisis of connection.

Nafeez doesn’t blame individuals for the crises we suffer, but rather the dominant global socio-economic system of capitalism. However, he says we must understand that, although the fault is systemic, we as individuals are complicit in perpetuating that fault.

“So much of what happens in the world today is not the result of one person’s decision,” he says. “It’s the result of a system, it’s the result of multiple processes, multiple decisions made in different ways.” The complexity of this decision-making process is such that, as Nafeez says, “no one has to take complete responsibility”.

Who is responsible for the global increase in carbon emissions that is leading to the crises of climate change? The men pumping oil out of the ground in Iraq? The Chief Executive of Shell? The manufacturers of cars and aeroplanes? Thomas Cook and the international tourism industry? Thomas Edison, inventor of the first mass-produced household electrical product, the light bulb? The President of the United States? The United Nations? The Chinese? You and me? Such responsibility is an impossible thread to untangle because it runs through each one of us. The crisis of connection has led to a crisis of responsibility.

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Unfortunately for Nafeez and the rest of us, those who have the most power to take responsibility don’t allow for alternative ways of thinking about the problems we face. “The people who essentially run the show,” he says, “think that the way they do things is the best possible way.”

More ominously for the rest of us, according to Nafeez, it’s not the Department of Health or Transport or Environment who have been charged with managing the shocks of crisis on society, it’s the military. “If you’re going to ask a man with a gun how to solve the problem of the Arctic melting, what’s he going to do?” Nafeez asks. “Blow the Arctic up?” He laughs. “Yeah, that’ll solve everything.”

In fact, far from helping prepare society to withstand crises, governments are investing in programmes that are more about protecting themselves from the social fallout of those crises. Nafeez tells us about the Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative, a social science research programme set up in 2008 and funded to the tune of eighty million dollars every year, which will use social media to predict domestic “insurgencies”.

As part of the project, Arizona State University are developing a data mining programme that will allow authorities to analyse threats from the information we share on social media. “This was about tracking dissent,” Nafeez says. “This could end up determining who goes on the drone kill list.” Rather than addressing the crisis of responsibility in a positive way, governments are turning on their own citizens.

Nafeez sees his job as helping to solve the crisis of responsibility by addressing the crisis of connection. He tries to “create narratives, join the dots of crises and create meaningful visions for people”. As part of that mission, Nafeez has recently published a science fiction novel, set in a not-too-distant future where the US and UK have re-occupied Iraq to quell an Islamist insurgency. He didn’t realise, when he started writing six years ago, how soon that not-too-distant future would be: Now.

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Nafeez, whose writing career started in academia, before moving onto journalism and film-making, is exploring fiction as a new way of reaching out to people. “As someone with an academic background,” he says, “it’s been a challenge for me, trying to find ways of communicating what appear to be really complex ideas in a way that most people can actually find accessible and engaging.”

Critical to Nafeez’s approach is engaging people emotionally; he believes that emotional involvement leads to reflection and action. “If you can tell stories in a way which can engage people,” Nafeez says, “I think that gets to the heart of how to get someone to reflect creatively in a way that actually impacts on their life.”

The bare ideas and concepts that you find in academia or journalism, by contrast, can be very theoretical and abstract, without bringing people to the point of change or action. “Fundamentally, it’s really about where you think change is going to come from,” Nafeez says. “Can you do change just by having dry academic conversations amongst people who agree with you? Or do you need to use different methods to make these ideas accessible to a mass audience?”

The way Nafeez has made his novel more accessible is “loads of blood, action, violence, swearing” – all the stock ingredients of a thriller, not usually found in a sober academic tome. “We don’t always have to look at these really serious issues in a way which is gloomy and depressing and uninspiring,” he says.

This is precisely what Antonino D’Ambrosio is talking about when he talks about creative-response. Sometimes I wonder if the reason why politics, law and economics are bogged down in interminably boring jargon is precisely so that most people don’t get engaged, don’t get involved and don’t look too closely: they are subjects made boring by design.

Creative-response, however, is demotic and popular. It is fun by design and there is no reason why it can’t be applied to these so-called boring subjects. Nafeez agrees. “That’s really what I’m excited about looking at,” he says. “How you can use mediums like fiction or art or music to engage people emotionally with these radical ideas.”

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For Nafeez, engagement and action will only come if people feel they are able to do something. For that reason, we have to be careful about the way we talk about these crises. “It’s important to frame our predicament in the right way,” he says. “Otherwise you end up with frustration and overwhelming: What can little old me do?”

Echoing John Holloway, Nafeez says we must re-frame the crisis of capitalism. “It’s not that the world is dying, it’s that paradigm that’s dying,” he declares. “By the end of this century – and that’s using the most optimistic figures – this system will be over.” What system will take its place depends on how we respond now.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Can Capitalism and Democracy Co-Exist?

This is the twenty-second in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The fact that everybody at Elevate seems to be so bothered by the idea of another person using our data to make a profit, raises a question from the audience: Can capitalism and democracy co-exist?

According to Shoshana, actually, yes. “There are good arguments to be made that democracy emerged as a condition for capitalism to work,” she says. “Because the populations were required for industrial capitalism to be successful, over time, there was enough pressure on elites to give up some power.”

You could argue that democratic power was only gradually extended to all working age men as part of the deal to provide labour for capitalists after the industrial revolution – and that women were included only because they were needed to expand the workforce after the First World War.

“The rise of market-based capitalism and the rise of democracy have been very imbricated, very intermeshed,” Shoshana says. “There are very salient ways in which they depend upon one other.” This is why Google’s new business logic is such a threat to democracy.

Shoshana is somewhat optimistic about what this tells us about capitalism. “Capitalism has survived for many centuries,” she says, “not by being the same thing, but actually by always changing, by being very plastic.”

For the last five hundred years, our economic system has oscillated between embedded (“cooked”) and disembedded (“raw”) capitalism. In times when capitalism was “cooked”, Shoshana argues, it has been very productive for society, resulting in higher standards of living, better education and healthcare. But in times when capitalism is “raw”, such as early nineteenth century Britain, it has resulted in huge inequality, struggle and conflict.

According to Shoshana, capitalism has this flexible quality and, luckily for us, raw surveillance capitalism is only one market form that it could take. There are many other forms of capitalism that we can create and adapt for our society – including the commons. “I don’t think that we just give up on capitalism,” she says, “I think we take it and we make it what it has to be for us.”

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Building Alternatives

One way of addressing the future of Dark Google would be to build alternatives to the technology of surveillance capitalism. “The problem,” Micah says, “is that the alternatives aren’t as good.” He finds DuckDuckGo, an alternative search engine, unsatisfactory for his needs, for example. “A third of the time, at least, I have to search Google instead,” he says. Personally, I’ve been using it since last year’s Elevate and have no complaints.

A search engine is one thing, but how can you build a new social network when you need, not just you, but all your friends to move from Facebook as well? Daniel suggests Diaspora, a dispersed social network that runs on personal servers. “Everyone could switch, invite all their friends and change,” he says, massively underestimating the technological capacity of most people on Facebook.

“This isn’t accessible to many people at all,” Micah argues. “And it’s hard to get out of this corporate dominance because these big companies are able to hire the best engineers in the world and pay them two hundred thousand dollars a year to make software that doesn’t crash.”

Daniel’s answer is to form technology solidarity networks with geeky friends, like CryptoParty. “I switched to Linux in 2006, but I had a friend to help me,” Daniel says. “Since then, I’ve learnt to love it.” It’s also important to remember that alternatives become better when more people use them and it’s not necessarily a case of either/or: there could be a transitional period where we use both Facebook and Diaspora; Windows and Linux.

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But Felix is less optimistic. “I don’t think social change happens by adding small pieces into a pie,” he says. “We’re within a highly structured space that really constrains these things. The first hack is easy, the second hack is more difficult and it gets more and more difficult because it’s such a slanted space.”

In the early days of the internet, programmers deliberately designed protocols without a slant. Why, for example, can you change your email provider without losing your address book? Because that’s the way it was designed, without a slant; it is a network, but it is not a monopoly.

“You can’t do that with Facebook,” Felix says; it is also a network, but it is a monopoly that will not communicate with others. The Facebook protocol is slanted. “I’m sceptical about lobbying the government to do stuff,” he adds, “but this would be one thing to do: force these protocols so that different logics can interact.”

Micah isn’t so sure. “Even if Facebook made it easier to interoperate with other systems like Diaspora or email,” he says, “they could choose to do this, but they’re not actually being governed by a spec that we’ve collectively agreed on.” They would still be a company and their business model would still be surveillance capitalism; their assets would still be our data.

Micah is also critical of Ello, a new social network gaining traction from saying that their business model is not about tracking people. “But it’s also just a company,” he says. What they do in the future is their choice. “For this stuff to work,” Micah adds, “we need to agree on standards that make us all equal.”

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Daniel wistfully describes how, in the EU, we discuss in excruciating detail the regulation of the light bulb, but do nothing about the technology that’s actually running our lives. “There is a lot of unreflective use of technology,” he says. For Shoshana, this is down to the modus operandi of the tech companies. “First they assert,” she says, “then they wait for push-back.”

Despite “hundreds and hundreds” of law suits against these companies, Shoshana wants much more from us. “So far there hasn’t been very much push-back,” she says. “They end up paying a small fine, which is pocket money or less, and so what they have institutionalised is what gets to stand,” she adds, sternly. “That’s why, when I talk about institutionalising, I’m not talking about just a building or a new kind of parliament; it’s a lot of more subtle stuff.”

Nevertheless, Shoshana is optimistic about the potential of capitalism to satisfy this need for institutionalising. “If enough of us decide that we’re fed up with the surveillance capitalism protocols of Facebook,” she explains, “that translates into economic demand and so there is, slowly constituting itself, a new kind of market place.” She gives the example of the 2013 launch of Qwant, a search engine that does not track users. “There are many other companies beginning to constitute themselves in this new space as a response to the crisis of surveillance capitalism,” she says. “That’s another way that capitalism works positively, to evolve in a way that is aligned with our interests.”

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From the audience, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation has what sounds like a wildly optimistic proposal. “We had unions, we had consumer organisations,” he says, of twentieth century capitalism cookery. “How is the Facebook user union doing? Is there any sense in expecting some kind of organisation of the users of these platforms?” I look up to see if he’s joking; he’s not. “Maybe we should be fighting within because not many people are going out,” he adds. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” Shoshana replies. “These are creative examples of new kinds of institutionalising!”

Micah is also optimistic about the direction in which programmers are taking encryption, a vital tool to combat the seizure of your data as surveillance assets. After the Snowden revelations, software developers realised that usability is an important security feature. “Now there’s all these projects to make encryption usable by everyone,” Micah says. “This is where things are shifting,” he adds. “It’s not in trying to get governments to change policies, it’s in trying to fix the broken holes in the internet.”

These holes are being steadily filled by programmers; you can take Facebook chat “off the record” with apps like Pidgin or Adium, for example. “We’re at the very beginning of this,” Micah says, “but it’s going in a good direction right now.”

So perhaps there is room for optimism; perhaps alternatives are on their way – Ello, Qwant, Loomio, CryptoParty, Pidgin, Adium, FreedomBox, Diaspora, Cryptocat. After all, as Elf Pavlik, a computer programmer who has lived without money or passport for five years, says, “A falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest.” Perhaps all we need is to support each other in making the right choices, conscious of the direction in which surveillance capitalism is taking us and determined to change course.

“I would like to end this session with a quote from another time when revolutions were going on,” Daniel says. “I would just modify it slightly,” he adds, with a smile. “Be realistic; demand the possible.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Data Disasters

This is the twenty-first in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Anton, from CryptoParty Graz is equally fearful. “There is no mass damage from mass surveillance,” he says, finding only a few small examples of people who have suffered from internet surveillance. “There was no big data disaster. I am afraid that we’ll need something like that to happen before the rest of the users wake up.”

Micah Lee, the man who put Edward Snowden in contact with Glenn Greenwald, hopes that the NSA leaks have been the first alarm clock. “But you might be right; that might not be enough,” he says. “We know they’re spying on everything we do, but people haven’t felt bad things happening to themselves.” He hurriedly corrects himself: “I’m sure some people have. If you live in the United States and are Muslim, I’m sure you are a lot more terrified than I am, living in the United States and being white.”

Nevertheless, historical examples of such data disasters come easily to mind for the panel. When they invaded the Netherlands, the Nazis used government data on religion to round up Jews; while, in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the US government used census data to round up Asian Americans. Today, of course, data collection is much deeper and more comprehensive than during the Second World War; a modern data disaster could be instant and inescapable. “Now, we’re just bleeding data with everything we do,” Micah says, “and this data is available to people who will start internment camps in the future.”

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Felix is, however, quick to point out that most people don’t think of their governments as Nazis and the comparison could be misleading. “It’s not about the wholesale repression of entire populations, but the very precise targeting of individuals,” he says. “So it’s very hard to notice until it arrives at your doorstep and then you’re the only one when it arrives because it arrived at other doorsteps at other times, in other contexts.” Surveillance capitalism is not a problem for you, until it is – and then it might be too late.

The issue for Shoshana is less a privacy catastrophe than “a ubiquitous digital infrastructure that is monetised and that those revenue streams are produced by the interventions to modify our behaviour”. Shoshana quotes former NSA operative William Binney, who says we are very close to living in a “turnkey totalitarian state”, where we live in a permanent condition of “anticipatory conformity”. Shoshana coined this term in 1988 to describe the self-censorship we perform when, for example, we decide not to tweet a joke about bombing an airport.

Today, we are one stage on from self-censorship; our behaviour is being manipulated without our awareness at all. It’s the world of stimulus-response. “And that world comes in quietly,” Shoshana says, “without a big data catastrophe.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Power and “Social Gravity”

This is the twentieth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Nadim Kobeissi, creator of the encrypted chat app Cryptocat, criticises Shoshana’s argument from a different direction. “There is a kind of politics that I have grown to dislike very much, which is the politics of us versus them,” he says. “It’s very effective, when you are wanting to mobilise a political movement, to use absolute terms,” Nadim adds, taking issue with the strong language that Shoshana uses: “usurping the internet”, “they’re conquering the internet” and “they’re taking privacy rights for themselves”.

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“It was never a question whether Google was harvesting user data,” Nadim points out. “It’s not the case that they have usurped society by forcing people to sign up for Google. People were voluntarily signing up and they were, in return, receiving a legitimate service.” Nadim sees the rise of Google and the tech giants in many more shades of grey than Shoshana has perhaps shown us. “Is it really like there’s this bunch of bad guys who are conquering the internet with internet soldiers?” he asks, his voice rising with incredulity.

But Felix is exasperated with this perception of the exchange, which he sees as a strain of Stockholm Syndrome. “I think this is a common misunderstanding of how power works,” he says. Felix explains that there are usually two ways of exerting power: the “hard power” threat of violence and “soft power”, like Hollywood films that give you “ideas” on how to lead your life.

“The way Google exerts power is neither through one nor the other,” Felix says. “I don’t meet anyone who likes Facebook, but I also don’t meet anyone who says, Okay, I’m going to quit it,” he adds. “This is a form of power that makes you voluntarily do something you don’t want.” All these technologies enable you to do some things and constrain you from doing other things; the problem is that you must either accept it or reject it wholesale. Here Felix agrees with Shoshana. “This is not a legitimate choice because it is: Do you want to talk to your friends or do you not want to talk to your friends?”

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Felix illustrates his argument by bringing it right into the room. “We’re in a German-speaking country and we’re having an English-speaking discussion,” he says. “So the price to contribute to that debate is to learn English.” This cost, of course, has consequences. People whose first language is English will have no problem expressing themselves clearly, while people for whom English is a second or third language will find it much harder – but, remember, we’re all “free” to participate or not…

The same is true for using Facebook or Google. “We are free to operate under these conditions,” Felix says. “They don’t tell us any more what to do, but they just slant the playing field.” This exertion of power might be subtle, but it is no less effective than hard or soft power. Felix returns to Nadim’s objection: “Yes, this is not a territory that gets usurped,” he says, “but this is a territory that is getting slanted; to do certain things becomes harder, to do other things becomes easier.”

Felix calls this “social gravity” and it is changing, both online and off. You can choose to walk against the slant, but doing that will make your life more difficult and, unless you are superhuman, gravity eventually wins. I no longer have a Google account, which is annoying when I want to post or comment on YouTube videos, but I have kept my Microsoft account for email because that’s just too complicated to quit.

“We think about these things as communication platforms, but they’re not,” Felix says. “From the point of view of those who create these platforms, they don’t care what you say, as long as you produce data. They’re not about content, they’re about constraining and shaping behaviour.” Furthermore, as more and more people use these platforms, the slant gets steeper and steeper.

“A lot of people face a big dilemma,” Daniel says, “because you are drawn into these things; all your friends are there. Some people don’t even access their email any more.” This subtle social gravity is tilting us towards surveillance capitalism, whether we like it or not. “You can post every day, I hate Facebook,” Felix says, “and they like it, because you use the system!”

“I thought the analogy was interesting,” activist and cryptographer Bill Budington says. “It becomes slanted and then you lose your balance and, as time goes on, it becomes so slanted that the effect of gravity overtakes your ability to resist it.” He gives an example of the US government serving legal papers on people through Facebook because of their real name policy. “Facebook wants to become incorporated into the state apparatus,” he says. Do we want to live in a world like that?

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Participation or Privacy?

This is the nineteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The central dilemma facing the average citizen hasn’t yet been discussed: How to participate in society without accelerating this dystopian future of surveillance capitalism.

Micah gets right to the point: “I’m actually very happy about the fact that I’m never lost any more because I have a phone with GPS,” he says. “This is my first time in Austria,” he adds, “but I’m able to see where I’m staying and find directions to walk there.” But this same technology means that, everywhere he goes, his location is being tracked, not just by Google, but also by T-Mobile and all the other ways data can leak out of his phone. “Still, it’s an amazing technology,” Micah concedes. This kind of trade-off between the enabling and the terrifying aspects of technology is widespread in the tools we have today.

“Every time we use the web,” Micah explains, “there are tonnes of services that track what we’re doing and tonnes of services that make the web more rich.” YouTube videos embedded in blogs, social media or other websites are a great convenience, but mean that Google can track, not only what videos you’re watching, but where you’re watching them. “Everything that we do leaves data trails,” Micah says, “and these data trails end up in databases of a wide variety of companies and many of them we have no idea they even exist.” Say what? “Like, you go to a website and there are dozens of advertising networks tracking you,” he adds, “and you don’t even realise this.” Well, there’s a comforting thought…

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Since the Snowden revelations last year, we now know that all of this data is also accessible to governments and spy agencies, particularly skewed to favour US surveillance operations. A huge percentage of websites use Google Analytics, a great convenience for website owners managing and analysing their traffic flows. “This means that, as you go from website to website, each of these totally separate websites are all sending their information to the same Google database,” Micah explains.

These databases are stored on servers in the US and, because your data has now landed on their soil, the US government can demand to have a look too. In total secret. “There used to be a small minority of paranoid people and everyone would think they were crazy,” Micah says, “and now it turns out they were completely right.”

However, Micah is hopeful in some ways. “People are starting to wake up and finally websites are starting to use encryption,” he says. “Things are starting to go in a better direction, but there are a lot of things that are almost impossible: How can I carry a phone that has a map and GPS without being tracked by the cell networks?”

There are ways to protect yourself from certain aspects of surveillance, but, as Daniel Erlacher says, “If you really want to defend yourself, your browsing experience is not just click and go.” You can install software that blocks JavaScript or anonymises your browsing, but your web experience will be much less rich, pages will load more slowly and, in some cases, not work at all. You are left with a choice between protection and participation.

Shoshana calls this an “illegitimate choice”. For her, this is reminiscent of the illegitimate choice that women in the 1980s were forced to make between having a family or a career. Shoshana and her generation of women had to resist and overturn that illegitimacy; our generation has to resist and overturn the illegitimacies of today. We each must take Shoshana’s vow of resistance: “I will change whatever I have to change around me to not be faced with that choice.”

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The internet is as essential for effective living in the twenty-first century as balancing family and career has become for women since the 1980s. “A few months ago, Facebook had a server crash and people around the United States couldn’t get onto Facebook,” Shoshana tells us. “People were actually calling 911.” We laugh, but the point is made: to millions, these services are critical to participation in society today. “Can you imagine living without Google search, or any kind of search?” she asks. “I certainly can’t.”

This is what makes surveillance capitalism “a Faustian pact” according to Shoshana. If we want to use these services to participate in society, then we are forced to give up certain things, such as our privacy. You could argue that this is not unlike the social contract we all implicitly sign up to when we give up the daily freedom of our children in exchange for eleven long years of education.

The problem with surveillance capitalism is that we have not agreed to give up these rights through the democratic process. There is no social contract; there are only corporate terms and conditions. Privacy is taken away from us unilaterally and without discussion or debate. “It’s a completely unregulated way to do things,” Daniel says. “It’s like driving on the road without any signs or any rules.”

There is, however, some doubt over the potential of our democratic process to face down the biggest technology companies. Daniel Erlacher reels off a list of the ready cash held by the big technology corporations. Apple have one hundred and ten billion dollars on hand, Microsoft fifty-one billion, Google fifty billion – and this was in 2012. That is more cash than most nation states.

Daniel cites Julian Assange’s book When Google Met WikiLeaks: “When we talk about Google,” he says, “we talk about US policy-making.” The implication is that the US government are perfectly happy to have Google in charge, as long as the US government can influence Google. The will of the people, meanwhile, doesn’t come into it at all.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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