‘Information defines your personality, your memories, your skills’ – Ray Kurzweil (Director of Engineering – Google)
The massive assembling of information was something that characterised life in the old days of Soviet Russia. In the times of Josef Stalin everyone in society was considered a potential enemy of the state and it’s estimated that state surveillance employed over a third of the working population. With no computers at work, or rather no appropriate algorithms churning away on them, spying on your fellow citizens was the growth industry to be in.
Now imagine our brave new world of the 2020’s, with computers mushrooming everywhere, with their little foot soldiers the software algorithms churning away on different quests, a digital infrastructure like never before. The Russian surveillance communities are no longer necessary, like many industries they have been swallowed by a new technology.
Welcome to the FANG companies of America.
Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, otherwise known colloquially as the FANG companies. Or companies that sink their teeth in and never let go, they deal in data, your data, my data, everyone’s data, and coerced by them we become friends for life. These new robber barons have amazing monopolistic power, rich beyond belief with their first mover advantages, their algorithms constantly assessing mountains of data, their tentacles crossing continents.
Take Amazon, the richest company in the world all earned on the back of selling stuff. If you’ve an account and been buying with them for sometime they will know an amazing amount about you, probably more than your husband, wife or partner knows, probably more than you know about yourself.
If you are invited into someone’s house for the first time, you will look around, note their furniture and décor, their kitchen, the books on their shelves, and then the smaller things like ornaments and framed photos. You come away with an idea of the person, their lifestyle, their values, what makes them tick. Well Amazon does the same but in a more penetrating and systematic way, it remembers everything and it never ever stops.
On their website, every time you click on something, whether you’re just looking, assessing something, or checking similar products, they will register and remember that click in perpetuity. They can see how interested you are in a product, how many minutes you’ve spent online, your wish list, your purchase history, your past requests for gift wrapping, and they will make suggestions, lots of them, of what might interest you.
With Amazon Kindle, the reading world they’ve created, they know which books you’ve read, how you’ve arranged your kindle library, which books you’ve archived, which you’ve shown interest in and which you’ve rejected. They might even have helped you write and publish your own book with their Kindle Direct Publishing software.
And the latest addition to their stable is Amazon Alexa. This is their virtual assistant who lives in your house, who can understand and monitor your conversations and can respond in a homey English voice to a growing array of requests. It might be something as simple as asking for a wakeup call, or more complicated like letting you know what traffic conditions are like in your neighbourhood or monitoring security when you’re away from your home. Alexa listens to you 24/7 while it gets to know you, your personality, your routines.
The company now employs over half a million people worldwide and over 25 thousand in their massive fulfilment warehouses in England alone.
Amazon is owned and run by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, the man who personally earned over 13 billion dollars last year, with a company that pays virtually no tax and yet is responsible for our increasingly deserted high streets.
And remember this mammoth effort is all just to sell you stuff, so they say !
The next real Biggy FANG is Facebook.
It’s not just you this time, these people want to know everyone that you know or have ever known or are ever likely to know. All your family of course, and your friends, extended friends and your friends’ extended friends – your work colleagues, roommates, cycling buddies, running pals, chess playing comrades, dance partners, co-drinkers, flat-earth fellow worshippers, just everyone. Also, just to get you started or if you haven’t got many friends you can buy them, thousands of them.
You’ll be encouraged to write about yourself, your interests and desires, and as you leave photos and videos for the world to see, they will encourage friends to respond. Facebook will send you joyful messages, photo montages on your family birthdays, make you aware of local groups and business opportunities, link you back to friends who live on the other side of the world. You’ll become immersed in the warm glow and security of like-minded friends, a feeling of belonging.
They maintain this involvement right from your very first click, every day, year after year, right up until your last day on earth. At that point they will lose interest because after rigor mortis sets in you simply can’t work a credit card any longer.
Yes, just like Amazon they’re really there to sell you stuff, but this time they’re acting as paid agents for their advertisers, to help them get their products and services to their optimum targets. Facebook monitors every nuance of your personality, they know your inner thoughts and fears, your sense of humour and most important what you feel about things. And just like Amazon they have their little software algorithms simmering below surface that can target you with a precision previously undreamt of by the advertising world.
TV stations and newspapers that have always relied on advertising revenue could only ever promote in an untargeted, scattergun fashion. Yesterday’s men, they are no longer on the sunny side of the street, becoming side-lined, losing viewers and readers, increasingly running short of cash.
Netflix is the latest kid on the block and they’re changing the world’s movie industry – again with their never-sleeping algorithms at work.
Years ago, in the UK, they invented a system to work out what people were watching on TV. This involved something about the size of a small coffin being attached to the back of about a thousand TV sets all over the country and these monitored and recorded which channels people watched, the times they switched channels and the times they gave up and went to bed.
I think the participants got a free TV licence or maybe a life’s supply of popcorn but the statistics they provided were vital to the advertising industry. All commercials pricing rates were based on those figures. If the statistics showed that 10 million people were watching Coronation Street at night then the price for a standard 30 seconds commercial slot would be much higher than for Songs of Praise on a Sunday morning.
Well Netflix have something similar but with ubiquitous smart TV’s they’re much more accurate and gather for safe keeping lots more of that vital data. But Netflix are not selling or advertising products at all, they’re selling a viewing experience, they rely on subscriptions.
Hollywood wants every movie to be a winner and they try and fine tune the product accordingly. So, the various production studios often run initial screenings to a selected audience where they’ll monitor reactions and then conduct direct research with questions like “Did you think the hero was courageous” or “How scared were you during the movie” etc. Then they’ll assess how they think the film should be marketed and re-edit the film accordingly.
Well Netflix know exactly how to target their films as well. They know the viewing characteristics of each individual subscriber and can blitz them with lists of recommended viewing and entice them into the new craze of Binge-Watching. They know how to gauge a viewer’s mood change over time and the algorithms are continually testing and searching for new ways to keep all eyes locked on screen.
They are the biggest movie producers in the world with a yearly spend of over $17 BILLION dollars and they’re inspiring copycats like Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Disney Plus, who all want a slice of the global viewing cake.
Google is so ubiquitous it’s not just a company any longer, it’s become part of our daily language and controls the premier search engine that runs the world.
When you make an internet search, no matter how obscure or scrappy your phrasing, ifs, buts, ands, or spelling mistakes, Google helps you land happily on the single page out of hundreds of billions of web pages that best answers your query. The company’s overriding mantra is RELEVANCE.
If you search for information about ‘Roman Glass in Venice’ the last thing they want you to waste time looking at are Roman roads, double glazing or flights to Italy.
So how do they make money? Their real cash cow is called ‘pay-per-click’. Google searches offer a selection of results and many of them will lead to web pages and sites that while answering your query are always promoting something. Almost every click you ever make has a price. And there are pop-up adverts displayed which again are all subject to pay-per-click. These payments are being made whether you buy something or not, Google are being paid just to lead you to relevant products and services.
To boost this relevance, Google incentivise their vendors to carefully choose hidden keywords and phrases that best encapsulate what they’re selling. These keywords are what Google software algorithms are constantly appraising and pricing. Vendors will try and game the system but Google always stay ahead constantly changing the parameters of their keyword algorithms. Like the formula for Coca Cola, their software is cloaked in deepest secrecy.
Google wear many hats as well. They have developed an encyclopaedic knowledge to decipher written languages and they use this in many of their other products, like their email service called Gmail, and their Android software installed on over 2 billion of the world’s phones. Google employ web robots which can read and understand language and these are constantly trawling through your emails and texts to learn all they can about you.
Then there’s the google Assistant, similar to Amazons’ Alexa it can freely converse with you and google Maps ensure you never get lost in the world.
The Google grandaddy of them all is YouTube. With over 30 million channels of personalised television and with 500 hours being added every minute it’s the go-to viewing experience for young people. Googles knowledge of your likes, dislikes, hopes and fears helps them curate your choice of videos to watch, and as usual, everything is drenched in super-relevant video advertising.
Google live in the shadows, listening, reading, assessing, planning our lives to come. They know the modes and character of our futures because they are formulating them in our absence.
When George Orwell wrote his book 1984, he imagined a dystopian future born out of the excesses of the Soviet Cold War era, where mass media would manipulate public opinion, history, even the truth and where people would reject and struggle against a totalitarian state.
But Orwell’s Big Brother never asked how you were feeling, never told you which friend from years past was trying to contact you, never told you about a bargain price available for something you’ve been planning to buy.
These flourishing software platforms have a hidden, dangerous and corrupting influence though. They promote what’s known as ‘confirmation bias’, the tendency to cherish only sources of information that confirm or support our prior beliefs or values, we become anaesthetised into our own prejudices. And with increasing loss of traditional media with its broader approach, we are left increasingly in the dark, helpless.
When spokesperson Kellyanne Conway stated that Trumps’ press policy would now be using ‘…. alternative facts’ we knew a line had been crossed. Truth really has gained all the flexibility of the trapeze artist.
But these modern purveyors of the new world know they can’t force the horse to drink when it gets to the trough, it’s a matter of ‘winning hearts and minds’, a strategy that was invented by the US army to help win the Vietnamese war.
They wanted the support of the Vietnamese people to help them defeat their countrymen in the North of the country, the Viet Cong insurgency. As a policy it was an utter failure though because the US soldiers had difficulty in telling the difference between friend and foe.
Let’s hope the same doesn’t happen to our acceptance of these new paradigms of software, companies to whom we willingly hand over all our most personal data in perpetuity. In the smoke and mirrors of our data dependent lives it’s often difficult just to see who the enemy really is. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep trying !