José M. de Areilza Carvajal

The Algorithm fights back

«The most seasoned technologists warn, in any case, that a digital future will have to be tackled from within an Internet different from the one we know; a fragmented or broken net, known in English as ‘splinternet'»


The Algorithm fights back

The documentary The Social Dilemma has given many people a grim idea of what kinds of societies and human beings the digital revolution is shaping. In an apocalyptic and sometimes annoying tone, the chorus of authors of this popular news report detail the mechanisms with which technological platforms create addiction and “harvest our behaviours”. It connects their business models with Skinner’s theories and his experiments with mice and it explains how the expression “the data economy” is a bad description of what consists in reality of mining our future behaviours. Everything is said to be at the service of businesses with commercial interests; they constitute the true customer who, thanks to  artificial intelligence and superquantum computation, achieve their ends by classifying and dominating the consumer, until he is turned into something like an automaton.

Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff, one of the leading figures in the film, has even managed to create a model to describe this new stage in the economy, which she calls surveillance capitalism. This is supposedly a new economic order “that demands human experience as the free raw material it will exploit in a series of hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales”. Voices, personalities and emotions are transnformed into behavioural data, which is merchandise in a global market for the prediction of behaviour, in which the individual is only a user, with an irrepressible desire for even more connectivity, and not a citizen endowed with liberty and rights. Zuboff’s theories, nonetheless, follow the motto “simplify and exaggerate”, attributed to the journal The Economist, for a large share of the planet’s economy has not succumbed yet to the voices of the digital sirens. Only 22% of Americans, for example, are on Twitter.

But what is most noteworthy in the Netflix documentary is that it does not propose many solutions and it ends up sounding rather like the cry “every man for himself”, what you would expect from a horror film. Its great irony is that it is so well-done that it encourages the viewer to consume new productions from the successful platform that supports it. Occasionally, this research seems to be aimed at promoting the Center for Humane Technology, a well-meaning project from a few repentant Silicon Valley geniuses. This new Californian enterprise consists no less than in correcting the negative effects of their former creations. We can only wish them even more success. It is worth pointing out, however, that, compared to the emotional high that the world of superheroes always provides, the possible answers to a Big Brother who’s out of control are classic and rational. They consist of self-control and public action, through education, regulation, taxation and a policy of defense of free competition.

We know that it is very complicated to set up intelligent regulation that  would place a clear limit on  the loss of privacy, protect freedoms and pursue the purveyors of fake news. The point of departure is to defend the individual from the loss of fundamental rights when using digital media. One would have to add an international frame —which hardly exists today—to national and super-national norms, and make it applicable to a group of firms whose economic weight (and enormous social responsibility), when combined, equal that of a superpower. The first step should be to tackle the dominant discourse about the digital world head on, that cavalierly proclaims an inevitable, beneficial future for whoever wants it and gets on board with it. In this sense, the documentary helps, in that it unmasks who to date is winning and who is losing. And it neutralizes the propaganda whereby it is held to be futile and senseless to struggle against an inevitable progress.

The most seasoned technologists warn, in any case, that a digital future will have to be tackled from within an Internet different from the one we know; a fragmented or broken net, known in English as a “splinternet.” The universal architecture which has permitted the internet’s rapid expansion and its global goods and services can be dismantled by geostrategic rivals who agree on the need to control the nets. The regime in Beijing does not allow the Google search engine or Facebook into its territory and it has made a successful bid for the development of artificial intelligence, with the primary aim of perfecting political control over individuals. China not only wants to be the master of its own digital sphere. It is apparently ready to project its values and practices throughout the world by means of successful technological firms. The United States’ answer during the Trump administration has been to call for an internet free of Chinese influence, vetoing this country’s companies in the name of national security. Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, has explained that “the Chinese apps threaten privacy, shed virus and spread disinformation”. Trumpism’s next step is apparently to outfit itself with the means to control the online world within its borders. This balkanization would go against the original vision that brought about the birth of the internet, inspired as it was in the sacred principle of freedom of speech and planetary dissemination. If  interventions like this were to make headway, we would be very far from the kind of global agreements that require the digital revolution in order to foster respect for human dignity and benefit everyone.

As in every period of history, the vigor and currency of civic values depends on what we do and neglect to do. It is true that the speed of change is exponential and that we are more and more distracted by the effect of algorithms and screens on our brains. But I prefer to walk on the sunny side of the street and to think that we are in time to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities that we are being offered. Digital addiction is an undeniable phenomenon (I am writing this text with my mobile far away from me, where it is ready to pounce, however silenced as it is, with its notifications turned off and at a time of day when messages are not frequent…). Our relationship to the screen requires habits of health and disconnection that are impossible to acquire without decisión, training, and a social context that assists us. But isolated efforts are not enough: institutions and norms civilize progress. In the case of the digital challenge, now is the time to lift our eyes from the screen and build the common good together.



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