“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.” – Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back
In December 2021, I published an article about a day in the life of a Google algorithm. At the time, the search terms generating the most hits were “porn” with 4.16 billion and “Covid-19” at 3.75 billion. Today, with Covid lockdowns over, porn has slipped to 3.9 billion while the celebrity virus produces 9.9 billion results, a 264% increase.
“Kyle Rittenhouse” had already dropped from over 100 million hits the day after his trial verdict to less than 60 million. I averred that he would fade to algorithmic irrelevance within a year. Today, he generates 2.3 million results.
What does this fun-house mirror effect mean beyond diversion or geeky technical analysis?
Although there are multiple answers to this question, one of the most obvious is that even by the crudest metrics, the world’s 5.16 billion internet users are allowing an inordinate amount of random, distracting noise into their lives based solely on Google’s ranking and ordering of information. This ranking is heavily influenced by the fact that Google is primarily an advertising platform.
Google is the number one internet search tool in the world, leads all other online competitors in ad sales and generates over 80% of parent company Alphabet’s $283 billion annual gross revenue. Google alone accounted for 29% of all digital ad spending globally in 2021.
“Google search algorithm” refers to the internal process that Google uses to rank content by relevance and quality against a particular search query. No one knows exactly how Google’s algorithm works. It is proprietary. Trying to understand how to game this algorithm to increase search ranking for prospective advertisers is it’s own industry.
Or as search engine geeks say, it’s all about EATing right — EAT being Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness, three of the most important elements of the Google algorithm for judging “content quality.” Decoding Google’s EAT system is a major focus of online advertisers and the consultants who advise them because it has a significant impact on advertising results.
This opaque system led the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to file its second anti-trust lawsuit against Google in mid-January 2023 seeking to break up their ad business. The states of California, Colorado, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia joined the DOJ in the latest lawsuit.
The first DOJ lawsuit was filed in October 2020 under the Trump administration accusing Google of monopolistic practices in blocking internet search competitors through exclusionary agreements. It is expected to go to trial in September 2023.
In order to evaluate the impact of these lawsuits, one has to momentarily zoom out from the legal minutiae to see Google’s business within the current globally wired social context.
LIVING IN THE PERPETUAL NOW
“Within the wind tunnels of the high-speed electronic media, the time is always now; the data blow away or shred, and what gets lost is all thought of what happened yesterday, last week, three months or twenty years ago. Unlike moths and goldfish, human beings deprived of memory tend to become disoriented and easily frightened.” – Lewis Lapham
A 2018 recap of research about the “always on” attention economy by the Guardian found that smartphone users in the UK check their phones “every 12 minutes” and 71% never turn them off. This “constant fragmentation of time and concentration” is, according to the Guardian, causing a near epidemic of stress, anxiety, fear, loss of productivity, physical brain inflammation, decline in IQ and depression, all of which weaken the human immune system.
Even with allowances for the Guardian’s typically hyperbolic reporting, their characterization nonetheless highlights the effects of a new digital zeitgeist in which the global flow of news and information is dominated by a handful of giant tech corporations that are relentlessly violating user privacy, censoring free speech and using complex algorithms that radically distort reality with zero historical or cultural context. It’s about sales, with sophisticated tracking and monitoring of all user activity fueling a round-the-clock quest to monetize and manipulate every aspect of peoples’ lives both on and off line.
The illustration above from Visual Capitalist offers a snapshot of the online reach of the top four tech-information networks & apps. These apps, networks, sites and search engines are not neutral tools. They monetize their operations through data mining, targeted advertising, premium subscriptions and product sales while tailoring user experiences to further drive the monetization process.
The cumulative impact is enormous. More than eight-in-ten U.S. adults (86%)in January 2021, for example, told Pew Research that they get news from a smartphone, computer or tablet “often” or “sometimes.” The statistics are similar worldwide, yet they offer only a superficial glimpse of a new global surveillance regime being engineered under the banner of customer convenience.
“Sleep is a standing affront to capitalism.” Jonathan Crary
In “24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep,” Jonathan Crary explores long standing programs by the Pentagon’s ominously ubiquitous Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a “sleepless soldier.” Crary traces the inevitable migration of the project’s methodologies into the private sector, where the mission has become the development of a sleepless consumer – always online, always consuming and producing “content” that can be monetized 24/7.
Sometimes called the “Pentagon’s Brain” since its founding in 1958, DARPA’s often impenetrable operations have had a disproportionate impact on modern life far outside the confines of the military. The agency is credited with creating the modern computer, the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, the Internet, unmanned drones, massive multiplayer online role-playing games and mRNA vaccine technology.
These inventions now dominate large swaths of the so called “private sector,” especially Big Tech and Big Pharma.
Google stands out not only because of its enormous impact on the daily lives of billions of people worldwide, but because of its evolution from a 2000 company code of conduct centered on the phrase “don’t be evil” to the replacement of this statement with “do the right thing” in 2018.
Google reinstated “don’t be evil” in a diminished role after employees and users revolted, but in 2021, a group of former employees filed a still pending lawsuit alleging that the company was actively engaged in evil actions through its close association with the Pentagon and US Customs and Border Control.
Google also worked with China in 2017-’18 on Project Dragonfly to design a search engine that would “filter websites and search terms that are blacklisted by the Chinese government” until a group of 1,400 Google employees signed a letter demanding “ethical assessments of Google projects.” In August 2018, a group of 14 human rights organizations also issued an open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai calling the company’s work on Dragonfly “an alarming capitulation by Google on human rights.”
During Senate testimony in 2019, Google’s vice president of public policy, Karan Bhatia, refused to “explicitly rule out working on tools for China in the future.”
In response to yet another employee protest in 2018, Google also dropped a contract with the Pentagon for Project Maven, which used the company’s artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to analyze drone surveillance footage.
John Battelle, a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, notes that the “privacy policies” and “terms and conditions” of big tech companies such as Google, Apple, et. al., amount to their de facto “governance structure,” yet no one bothers to read them.
In a given year, the typical American should they actually care to read and understand the privacy policies they mostly skip, would spend 76 days of that year reading.
Battelle says that the largest tech companies are “…not particularly concerned about projecting forward the implications of what they might be building.” The result is a kind of joyless, addictive dysfunction caused by what he describes as a fusion of tech and the capitalist state that has come to dominate data.
“We need a different approach to how we process information…. What we have failed to do is visualize or understand what our current relationship with information is.”
This challenge has become more urgent because of the ways that governments enlisted tech platforms such as Google, Twitter and Facebook to censor “misinformation” during the Covid-19 pandemic, normalizing and weaponizing surveillance in the name of public health.
This censorship is not an accident. During the 2020 election, the top five tech donors to Joe Biden’s campaign and Democrats generally were the PACs of Google/Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook.
Jathan Sadowski, a research fellow in the Emerging Technologies Research Lab, says:
The pandemic marks a real serious inflection point. Who decides when COVID has gone away? If it’s something that never really truly goes away, those technologies and those systems may never truly go away either. As history shows, we very rarely go back to the moment before. Once new doors have been opened, people are reticent to close them.
In a potential harbinger of where this capitulation of data management to big tech companies such as Google may lead, China announced a national “social credit law” in November 2022 that is designed to measure and track both “traditional financial creditworthiness and social creditworthiness.” Measurement and tracking of social creditworthiness is not intended to be a benign government activity. It comes with both state sanctioned rewards and punishments.
Even in 2018, before the nationalization of social credit scoring was officially announced, more than 23 million Chinese citizens were banned from buying airline tickets due to “social credit offenses.”
Now, the Chinese government has published a comprehensive list detailing government sanctioned punishments, including being “banned from participating in government procurement bids, consuming luxury goods, and leaving the country.” People with bad scores will also be shamed online by having their private information publicly displayed.
THE UNITED STATES OF CHINA
China is not the only nation implementing a national social credit regime. A 2019 article in Fast Company titled “Uh-oh: Silicon Valley is building a Chinese-style social credit system,” detailed the many ways that US tech companies are already using social credit scores “outside the law” to rate, punish, reward or ban users.
Buried in their opaque terms and conditions, Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and many other corporate tech apps used by hundreds of millions of people can ban users outright, even though nearly everyone is now dependent on one or all of these platforms. Google can also disable user accounts for myriad “violations” of their terms and conditions.
The scope of this power to isolate, punish and censor through widely used tech platforms was thrown into glaring relief during the Covid pandemic. While there is a clear need to monitor hate speech and incitements to violence, a February 8, 2023, report by the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability makes it clear that big tech and corporate media “coordinated to censor Americans’ free speech” from the start of the pandemic.
The more difficult question is what to do about the problems of privacy and freedom of speech, movement and access. The default answer always seems to be enforcement of anti-trust laws to break up tech “monopolies.”
While many thoughtful analysts of the tech world believe that profound change is needed, there is also broad consensus from both the putative left and right that anti-trust action may be the wrong solution. Most of the companies being targeted do not charge for their services, and users are, at least in theory, not forced to sign up to use their platforms.
THE ANTI-TRUST ARGUMENT
Perhaps the most eloquent and compelling argument for anti-trust action against Google and their ilk has come from the generally progressive Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), but not without caveats.
Big Tech's monopolies—with their attendant lock-in mechanisms that hold users' data and social relations hostage—remove any accountability that might come from the fear that unhappy users might switch to competitors.
The emphasis on curbing Big Tech's manipulation tactics through regulatory measures has the paradoxical effect of making it more expensive and difficult to enter the market with a Big Tech competitor. A regulation designed to curb Big Tech will come with costs that little tech can't possibly afford, and becomes a license to dominate the digital world disguised as a regulatory punishment for lax standards.
The generally left leaning Brookings Institution also notes that any anti-trust litigation would take years to prosecute. Even then, they caution that“Antitrust doctrine does not address how social media companies collect large and detailed amounts of personal information, control misinformation, address extremism, exhibit transparency and accountability, and more generally, wield influence over democratic institutions.”
The conservative CATO Institute describes the resultant stalemate:
Republican lawmakers allege that Big Tech companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter use their content moderation policies as weapons in an ongoing anticonservative crusade.
Activists on the left have had their complaints about social media content moderation, too, but more recently their concerns are focused on — among other things — white supremacist radicalization.
In addition to the stalemate over anti-trust action against the big tech companies, there is also vitriolic partisan disagreement over Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was passed in 1996 to protect online services from being held liable for nearly all content posted by users.
Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have called for its repeal, but Democrats and Republicans who might be able to do something to modify or mitigate the uninteded effects of Section 230 agree on little else beside their belief that it is bad for their respective political parties.
The five largest US tech platforms – Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft – had a combined market capitalization of $3.4 trillion in 2020, nearly one quarter of the S&P 500’s total value. These private corporations, with their enormous monopoly data and platform advantages, are driving public policy, not the other way around. Their opaque and undemocratic operations are predicated on the “privatization of public value.”
The Australian Financial Review (AFR) notes, “The fact that Big Tech itself is driving the public sector’s digital transformation does not bode well for the state’s future regulatory and operational independence.”
AFR recommends mandatory transparency and a transition to public/user ownership. The challenge is how to begin the process of such a transition.
PRECISION GUIDED INFORMATION BOMBS
During the November 18, 2021, episode of the Joe Rogan show, Tristan Harris, Co-Founder & Executive Director of the Center for Humane Technology, offered a lucid explanation of the many ways that China uses algorithms and social credit scoring to both control their own population and sow discord among their geopolitical competitors.
His thoughtful characterization of the borderless world being created by social media and the use of sophisticated algorithms by globe spanning tech services such as Google highlights both the dystopian peril and empowering potential of the conflicting forces at play on a wired planet.
Courtesy of Kim Komando, “8 ways Google constantly invades your privacy – and how to fix it.”
Reimagining Politics Magazine is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, I hope you will consider becoming a subscriber.