Disorder Magazine Logo
Nine Ways Big Data Is Sucking Your Soul

Nine Ways Big Data Is Sucking Your Soul

By: Kamran Tanner

The internet promised the world. Decentralised and governed only by imagination, its virtual filigree would empower individuals and galvanise communities. Instead this vision has faded into an absurd alternative dimension, a tangled web of twisted truths, trolls and Trumps. Replacing technutopia… political players and technogarcs lurk behind convincing masks of convenience productivity and entertainment, directing our digital consumption like modern-day Pied Pipers. What’s the opposite of transparency? A computer monitor. A phone screen. A scanner darkly. Which begs one big creepy question – like, who has access to our data? – and nine terrifying conclusions. Illustrations by Benji Roebuck

 

1. WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN?

The internet is vast, limitless, unbound. Except the internet is just five things: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon. Yep, five giant tech companies all based in the western United States govern everything you see online, the channels where you see it, and the devices you use to access it. Imagine letting five guys you’ve never met – let’s call them Sundar, Tim, Satya, Mark and Jeff – control your eyes and fingers. And there’s nothing you or your elected representative can do to stop them. With great power comes great monopoly, as Uncle Ben offa Spider-Man and not offa packets of rice, might have warned. Thus Apple reroutes overseas profits via subsidiaries in Ireland, saving more on tax in a year than the UK spends on transportation. But, hey, you really need the distraction of your iPhone while stuck for 40 minutes on a Southern train in the sidings at Heyward Heath. Basically, the internet’s five leaping lords are unbridled as pagan gods and you should picture them peeking over your shoulder during every skanky “I was just curious!” internet search and peering through your laptop camera whenever you rattle your milkshake.

 

 

2. DUMB FUCKS

Mark Zuckerberg called Facebook’s early users “dumb fucks”. Here’s why. Any information you feed the internet, as innocuous even as a Like, is stored and collated and cross-referenced with other data to generate a profile… not your profile, their profile of you, which can describe and predict your behaviour more accurately than your live-in lover, brother or mother. Many websites host trackers that spy on your movements across devices: your private looks-at-porn-then-swastikas-then-shoes activity gets fed back to site owners plus, y’know those fives guys named Sundar, Tim, Satya, Mark, Jeff and the CIA. (Oh wait…) This data, when collected in large “anonymous” sets and mushed with other users gives life to algorithms, which organise the online world you see and slyly encourage you to engage and buy stuff, to stay in the curated maze. Facebook makes 80 per cent of its revenue through targeted advertising – ten billion dollars in 2016. And that’s not just pimping things, but ideas, carefully crafted ideas, typically about Mexicans. Privacy is no longer a "social norm”, says Mark Zuckerberg, who maintains four empty properties around his home so he can’t be spied on.

 

3. I AM NOT A NUMBER!

Data is not very anonymous. Combined with other publicly available info – work, hobbies, address, birthday – your online habits are easily traced back to you. Just so you know. But let’s talk about a type of algorithmic process called scoring. Social media data, such as a user’s interests, writing style and friends list are used to create talent scores for employability, health scores for deciding insurance rates, recidivism scores for calculating the probability of reoffending. Stuff you didn’t know counted for anything, counts for something. Insurance, mostly, if you live in the UK and want a cheap deal. Text speak grammar and phonetic spelling will effect your premiums in this scenario. IBM, the computing behemoth, conducted an experiment where info from Twitter and stolen passports from the dark web (the truly massive web not controlled by Sundar & pals), plus media and humanitarian casualty reports, were combined to track Syrian refugees and predict if they were a “terrorist”. In 2017 a machine-learning Facebook algorithm returned “anti-Semites” as an advertorial target audience. Check out trackography.org for an overview of the companies tracking your movements.

 

4. PULL FOR PLEASURE

Americans paw their smartphones more than 2,600 times per day. Because they are hopelessly addicted. And probably so are you. Tech companies stuff their products with addictive design. Psychologists help give apps more pop than a tube of Pringles: pull down to refresh, endless scrolling, autoplaying videos. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. That little buzz from seeing the red dot of a new message? That’s dopamine in action. But social media is also more sinister, exploiting negative emotions such as frustration, loneliness and boredom to trigger engagement. Do you habitually, ritually, reflexively check for new notifications? They got you, baby.

 

5. SMARTPHONES, DUMB HUMANS

More than two billion of us carry smartphones and thus can access to the world’s total amassed knowledge in the time it takes to say “Kardashian”. What people used to call “memory” and “imagination” is out-sourced to Google. There’s just too much, there’s way too much info. And in an effort to suck it all up, we chop it into little bites of, say, 280 characters. Awesome: a negligible amount of knowledge about many, many things, and a deep understanding of next to nothing. But something else is at play. The phone itself is a distraction, calling us to the next dopamine hit – whether it’s in your hand, in your pocket, or even switched off. According to one study, its mere presence damages your cognitive capacity. The expectation that it could blink or vibrate at any moment limits our ability to focus and somewhat lowers the old IQ, a phenomenon called “continuous partial attention”.

 

6. NUKE 'EM ALL

Remember when people worried that mobile phones caused cancer and killed sperms (not necessarily in that order)! That was a real dumb time, right? Not a big part of the advertising: healthy, bouncy people with great teeth in phone marketing don’t get ushered off by a hastily-delivered caveat, like for pharmaceuticals. “Prolonged smartphone use may desecrate your balls.” But, in late 2017 the California Department of Health issued some guidelines to reduce the public’s risk to radiation emitted by their smartphones. These include: keep the phone away from the body, keep the phone away from the bed at night, remove headsets when not on a call. In summary, treat your phone like it’s your ex: lock it in a lead-lined box and bury it in the cellar. I mean, stay as far away as possible.

 

7. FAIR AND BALANCED

Emotional contagion is a group-mind phenomenon. Remember when everyone on Oxford Street got the fear because of a bomb that turned out to be one guy getting slapped at the tube station? That. On the internet, it’s when the nonsense you post matches the tone of the guff in your feed. For a week in 2014, Cornell University filtered half a million Facebook feeds: some only saw friends’ positive posts, while others were met with an onslaught of depressing vitriol. If all we see is Hallmark greeting cards, we start posting in the style of Hallmark greeting cards, is the conclusion. Replace Hallmark with Hitler and soon Poland’s gonna want to strengthen its borders. Cambridge Analytica is a private data mining company that specialises in leveraging personal info. Their modified messages elicit the sort of emotional response that is felt at the polls. Happy clients include Leave.EU and Elect Donald Trump. This is not a problem of the weak-minded. We are all being subtly influenced, every swiping minute.

 

8. BRAVE NEW WEB

The internet of things turns daily life into 1960s sci-fi. Self-driving car? Check. Delivery drones? Check. Inter-connectedness homes? Check. Robot hand to ease your tension? Probably. There’s a future being cooked where a holographic salesman pops up at any shop you’ve passed twice, where virtual worlds are as addictive as cocaine and government surveillance files are more detailed than a narcissist’s diary. Nothing takes place that isn’t documented for Instagram. Nothing real, anyway. We have replaced ourselves with glossy upgrades; unreal confections who show no fear. We have sub-let reality to little boxes of light. And in this gilded sociopathic state, shock-horror, mental health issues amongst young people are soaring.

 

9. THE WITHDRAWAL METHOD

Google powers 97% of all mobile searches. If school taught us anything it was, get more than one point of view. And don’t take candy from strangers, which feels relevant here, too. Break free of Google and use the search engines Qwant, DuckDuckGo or Startpage, which don’t keep records. Make anonymity a habit. Search in private mode on desktop or try Firefox Focus on mobile, which is private by default. Block ads with AdBlock Plus. Deny location permissions to apps you’re not currently using. Ditch apps you don’t open: they continue to collect data on you, especially the free ones, the creeps. Use unique passwords across different accounts, and have separate emails for different purposes. Like a damn spy. Flight mode is not just for aeroplanes, it’s get-back-to-your-life mode. Creativity mode. Me mode. And if you’re feeling really brave, leave your phone behind for a day. Make it a game. Let’s pretend it’s the 1980s! As the legend Ferris Bueller said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”