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 >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

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