Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben

I have to confess that I did my very best to control my ire doing many parts of the presentations for this week’s discussion.  First, if we start talking about what the future will be like while describing children as, “whiney little humans,” it is borderline counterproductive.  Those “whiney little humans” Ms. Tufeki spoke of will one day be running, programming and controlling the software she speaks about in the piece.  So, from my perspective, insulting the group that will one day be running the technology that has sparked so much debate probably isn’t the best way to get started.  Ms. Zuboff on the other hand states that surveillance capitalism is brought about by the essence of capitalism.  Companies have always tried to learn more about buyers and shopping habits. Why when this same idea occurs online is it so terrible? Then for both to blame the Artificial Intelligence that is born from 21st data collection as a system that is making…forcing people to buy things they don’t really want/need to buy … or this same AI is going to force consumers to watch anti-Semitic videos is almost absurd. People have not lost their rational minds. AI is scary to the uninitiated, but it shouldn’t be treated like marijuana was in pieces like “Reefer Madness”.

            Based on watching and reading, my understanding of surveillance capitalism actually began a long time ago.  I can remember being a kid in the 70s walking through the mall with my mom and young adults with clipboards would approach us and ask questions about purchases and shopping habits.  One time I even got to participate in a study that focused on toys that went into cereal boxes.  Whoever it was that took the time to respond to those young adults with clipboards knew full well that any and all information provided would be used and sold to companies to push magazines and encyclopedia subscriptions.  I can remember the mailed flyers filling up my mailbox – that was as long as the older kids in my neighborhood didn’t put explosives in it before the post arrived.  Because of all of that, my house was loaded with half, if not all of, the Time Life Series.  My family had every book on Vietnam because of my stepfather’s service over there.  I had volumes of history books.  Did we need them? No.  Did we want them?  Kind of.  Did we use them?  They came in handy for school projects – and for making blanket forts. As soon as it was clear that there was more than one phone in every home, telemarketing and phone surveys were the new form of surveillance capitalism.  Once the Internet became popular what did the world expect? Then the pandemic hit and most of the planet was forced inside.  People do more online shopping now than ever before.  Naturally companies are going to harvest as much data as they can.  If there was no pandemic, than I could fully comprehend what both of these brilliant women were discussing.  But, surveillance capitalism and data capturing were born on the heels of COVID. Companies were doing all they could to make shopping and buying easier.  Yup, some people take advantage during times of crisis. 

            Both of theses brilliant women expressed a very dark future for AI.  There were also rays of hope.  My feeling is something like this:  TNT was created in 1863, accidentally, but was then used to aid in mining and road building to enrich and connect the nation.  Then in 1902 someone figured out that TNT would be great for use in warfare.  We’ve been using it ever since.  When the internet first launched, it was used as a means of selling goods, communicating ideas, sharing information and expanding mankind’s global reach.  TNT was used for the same thing and look what’s become of it.  Why should mankind expect any less of the Internet and surveillance capitalism?

            Ms. Tufeki, quoted an unknown Hollywood philosopher: “With prodigious potential comes prodigious risk.” She was speaking on all of the information that is out there on the web and how all of that information poses such a risk to mankind through the algorithms companies use to code the data and manipulate what users see and buy.  None of this is new.  I offer my own quote from an unknown Hollywood philosopher, Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Mankind is not oblivious to the “Capturing” Ms. Tufeki spoke about.  Mankind should be empowered and empower themselves to share data responsibly so that the ethical downside of all the data that is out there becomes less of a temptation for the nefarious.  There is also protection against much of this already built into our lives.  Software within software recognizes and askes users about the acceptance of cookies and other surveillance capitalism tools that attempt to steal or “Capture” data.  Ms. Zuboff said, “The digital world and the road to a digital future have been hijacked.”  Ms. Zuboff points out that surveillance capitalism is driven by all of the major players usually identified as trying to take over the world (Google, Amazon, Facebook). The world was hijacked, because the world allowed itself to be hijacked.  This isn’t Minority Report where AI can enter my brain and pull out my thoughts.  Ours is a “see and click” society.  I have to consciously enter those thoughts to be recorded.  If users aren’t exercising great responsibility while using the great power of the internet than that is what we should be teaching and not “whining” about the barn door after the horses have gone.

            Ms. Tufeki reminds users not to behave like “whiney little humans” when online because that’s what Orwell’s Big Brother is hoping users will do.  The major companies want users to click on impulse ads and watch more YouTube videos.  Yes, we cannot escape the ethical downside of collecting all of the information some companies utilize to make their message clear.  Hatred and bias of any form should not be tolerated.  But we cannot blame companies for using the technology at their disposal to do what they have done for decades.  Companies have a responsibility to their employees to sell products that keep everyone paid and employed.  Impulse candy at the supermarket and pop-up ads are one in the same thing. AI nor anyone else – aside from someone with a gun – can make you purchase anything.  The data collected and captured certainly allows for companies to suggest items that may be to a user’s liking.  This is also where some of the more shadier practices of surveillance capitalism come into play.  But again, as another Hollywood philosopher, G.I. Joe, once said, “knowing is half the battle.” Now we know and now we can teach.

Who needs young people with clip boards to walk through the mall, when companies can hire just as many to sit behind a computer and “Capture” data?  The theoretical downside to all of this is that if companies took this part of their marketing activities out of their corporate model, there would be some great numbers of people heading to the unemployment line.  Surveillance capitalism and the capturing of data is a huge industry employing countless numbers.

             Unfortunately, I believe it would be unfair for a company to develop software and not have a right to track users’ interface.  I think companies do have a right to record information.  Automakers have been doing it for years.  Recalls based on surveillance capitalism and information capturing have saved lives.  Tech companies have the same responsibility.  Surveillance capitalism needs to use information ethically. That’s common sense. Automakers hope their products will carry people and goods to locations that make everyone’s life a better and happier place.  However, there are people who use cars and trucks for some very bad purposes.  Just like TNT back in the early 20th century.  Mankind has a responsibility to control technology and not be controlled by it.  AI is just what it is – artificial.  Users make it, can break it and have the power to control it – or pull the plug.  AI does not live and cannot harm people if it’s not plugged in.  Howard Stern said this may years ago, “If you don’t like what I’m saying or selling – turn the dial.”  History has shown us that there can be no change without sacrifice.  AI is a huge change that is coming whether mankind is ready or not.  There will be some sacrifice and some of it will not be pleasant.  There can be no peace without the threat of war. And now users know the threat that looms on the horizon.  Surveillance capitalism is that new threat – so are self-driving cars.     

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