I am being edged out of participation in a society that communicates in the language of technology. In a couple of years, I predict that I won’t be an owner of a mobile phone. Already I am receiving messages from unknown friends that my non-smartphone cannot read because they (presumably) contain HTML, a language my phone doesn’t speak. Over the next couple of years, more and more communication will happen in languages that my phone cannot interpret, as more and more people start using smartphones and start to forget that there could ever be an alternative. Well over a billion smartphones have been sold in 2014 alone and, already by 2013, more than half of all American adults owned a smartphone, with over a million Google Android devices being activated every day.
In the next couple of years, my phone will become next to useless and I will become one of those people who are whispered about at parties – He doesn’t even have a phone.
Already I miss out on a vast amount of communication that happens over proprietary systems, driven by the smartphone technology boom. The average smartphone user checks his or her phone a hundred and fifty times every day, using an average of forty-one mobile apps. I don’t blame users for this, but it drives us all into the hands of the closed communication systems that are promoted on these devices.
SMS and email are open systems. In other words, anyone can send anyone else an SMS or an email; it doesn’t matter who provides them with the service. But not just anyone can communicate through Twitter, Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp, Instagram or any of the other communication tools that are supposedly at our service.
None of these “tools” is like a phone book. A phone book is a collection of telephone numbers attached to names that anyone can use to contact anyone else. How quaint. If you weren’t in the phone book, however, that didn’t mean that no one could contact you and it didn’t mean that you couldn’t contact anyone else; it just meant that your number was private. Facebook, to take the most popular example, is not like this. In order to contact someone on Facebook, you have to register with Facebook. Likewise, in order for someone on Facebook to contact you, you have to be registered with Facebook. It is a predatory system; it feeds off its membership; the more time you spend on Facebook, the more sustenance you give that mode of communication.
With well over one billion users, choosing not to be on Facebook is, to a certain degree, choosing not to participate in communication with those people. Facebook has around 1.35 billion active users. WhatsApp: 600 million; Instagram: 300 million; Twitter: 284 million; Viber: 209 million. Likewise, choosing not to have a smartphone is increasingly choosing not to be able to communicate with your friends. You can’t even use WhatsApp or Viber without a smartphone. I still have no idea who is sending me those unreadable messages.
As Shoshana Zuboff says, this is an illegitimate choice, it really is. Systems that used to be open and free are being fenced off and monetised. Email is open and free; Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are not. If you use Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp, you can never communicate with me without contributing to the business model of these closed systems. There is a further risk, with the current threat to network neutrality, that a “First Class” internet will be established, excluding those like me who opt out.
What’s the problem with social media?
I concede that I’m probably in a minority who feel disgusted that Facebook are profiting from my communication with my friends; that they are mining my communications for data in order to more effectively sell products to me, my friends and family. British Telecom might have profited from my telephone calls to my friends back in the nineties, but my calls weren’t bugged, screened and fed back to me in the form of personalised advertising.
I think it’s important at this point to distinguish between the traditional way that advertising paid for “free” services and the way that companies like Google are able to provide “free” services. Cable television, for example, uses the traditional model: adverts are beamed in a fairly scatter-gun fashion at just about anyone who hasn’t bothered to switch over or get up to make a cup of tea. The advert hopes to influence your purchasing choices maybe tomorrow, maybe in a couple of weeks when you go shopping. Google, however, extracts data from you and can use that data to influence your purchasing choices directly, right now. There is a big difference.
But perhaps you feel like exchanging your data for “free” communication is a good deal. I accept that this is a price that many people are willing to pay for a “free” service. Fine, but there’s a lot more to my objection.
By using Twitter, I would not only be contributing to a business model that I fervently disagree with, I would also be shutting down options for other people. I would be adding my voice to communication that happens in exclusive, fenced off, proprietary and predatory spaces; rather than in inclusive, open and free spaces. That closed space keeps some voices out. The thought disgusts me. I don’t want to be a part of that clique.
But perhaps you feel like Twitter gives voice to more people than it excludes; certainly a lot more than are excluded by illiteracy or a military dictatorship2. Good point, but there is still more to my objection.
Twitter, it is worth pointing out, is not a democratic organisation. It is a business and will operate to extract the maximum wealth from us. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, WhatsApp, all likewise. There is no democratic oversight for these businesses, aside from government regulation. Unfortunately, these technology businesses have significant advantages over government regulatory bodies, namely much greater financial, computational and intellectual resources. More sinisterly, they are fulfilling a surveillance role for our more secretive governmental bodies that will always mean that regulatory bodies are fighting with one hand tied behind their back. But what, you might ask, is wrong with this hobbled regulation?
Well, as Shoshana demonstrated, perhaps the greatest consequence of the rise of these exclusive, fenced off, predatory, proprietary technology companies is the threat of the total erosion of democracy. As Shoshana explained, Google has pioneered a new economic logic: the company needs us as neither employees nor customers. If Shoshana is correct and democracy did indeed grow from the need for capital to employ labour, then what will become of democracy if the world is filled with companies like Google, vastly profitable, with a minuscule workforce? Google is the oligarchy of the internet age. Their only oversight is their “corporate mantra”: Don’t be evil4. Their clemency is extended on a whim. With annual profits of twelve billion dollars, a highly educated workforce with development interests including artificial intelligence and drone technology and a user base of one billion people, great evil is certainly within their power.
Beneath this threat lies the real problem: Google, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and all the rest make good products. That is the real problem, as Micah Lee identified. Because these products are so good, we are choosing this closed future for ourselves without really thinking through the undemocratic consequences of what Shoshana calls “surveillance capitalism”. And, as more and more people choose this future, it becomes harder and harder for people like me to choose any alternative. We either go along with the masses or we refuse to participate in mass society. Can you see the dangers inherent in these “choices” now? Sorry to employ the meretricious appeal to fascism, but the Germans chose Hitler.
Those without smartphones or a Facebook account already feel like an excluded underclass. Without a revolution in communication, it will only get worse.
How can we operate in this closing world?
Bradley Garrett is famous for taking a scenic photograph from the top of the Shard, Europe’s tallest building, recently erected on London’s riverside with buckets of Qatari money. The shot is famous primarily because the Shard wasn’t quite finished yet, it certainly wasn’t open to the general public and he was seventy-six stories up in the midnight air, peering over a ledge.
For obvious reasons, that photograph, and hundreds of others taken in equally adrenalin-pumping circumstances, became exceedingly popular on social media. I believe the term is “viral”. Popularity on social media led to a surge of interest from the mainstream media and suddenly Bradley’s night sport (and PhD research subject) of “urban exploring” was blown into the limelight. What Bradley was doing was not only borderline illegal, but it was also a great insult to the powers that would try to control our movements in the city. Bradley challenged the physical closed space in a spectacular, creative fashion that brought awareness of the enclosure to people who would otherwise have just gone on about their day. Creative-response.
I’m sharing this story because Bradley’s experiences with academia, social media and mainstream media can teach us something about how to get our message heard and change people’s perceptions of their world; precisely what we try to do at Elevate. “The only way to forge broader coalitions and get people talking about the politics of closed space and the control of narratives over our histories,” Bradley writes, “is to use the same techno-cultural media circuitry that is constantly entangling and distracting everyone.”
In other words: Never mind the threat to democracy, get a Twitter account.
Bradley, however, has one major caveat. “The danger here,” he says, “is that if you try to change the system from the inside, often what becomes changed is you.” Participating in a social media that encourages constant changing fashions, that advertises luxury goods, exotic holidays and foreign brides, will have a detrimental effect on your health and happiness.
Interestingly, given the dubious legality of his activities, Bradley is more afraid of the media than of the police. “While the authorities have largely failed to stop us,” he says, “the media is still working diligently to de-tooth urban exploration by buying us out.” Appropriately enough for a man used to evading the British Transport Police while running the Underground, Bradley has an escape route for the media as well. “Now that we have used their channels to broadcast our messages,” he explains, “it’s important that we slip the net and re-form as something equally inspiring and hard to pin down, and then reform again from another angle.”
Those words capture the essence of Antonino D’Ambrosio’s creative-response and his exhortation to be “flexible and fluid”. They could also be the beginnings of a battle strategy for using social media in the spirit of revolution.
1. Be hard to pin down. Do not give the social media corporations your life and livelihood; use an alias if you wish, lie to them.
2. Be inspiring. It is the message you communicate to us that is important, not the accumulation of surveillance data on social media servers. Use and abuse them to broadcast your message, not theirs. But you must make that message inspiring. It must be creative-response; it must speak with passion and with compassion. If it does not, then leave Twitter and keep working until you have something to say.
3. When your broadcast is over, burn your accounts without nostalgia or mercy. Be a citizen, not a “consumer”.
And, for pity’s sake, save your brainspace and use an ad-blocker.
The ideas contained herein are taken from my work with the Elevate Festival. The book of the festival is available now in paperback from lulu.com. It’ll be arriving before Christmas for download…