How Big Data will come to direct our Existence

Photo credits: numeric analytics.

The twentieth century has been one of unprecedented human manipulation experimentation on extremely large scales- Stalinism in Russia and National Socialism in Germany are the most obvious examples. Throughout the century, uncountable written pages have been inspired by the impressive views of military marches, brain-washing propaganda, gulags and concentration camps. Later, long after Hitler and Stalin’s death, other totalitarian or quasi-totalitarian experiments continued in every corner of the world, from Maoist China to Chile under Pinochet, from the ethnic cleansing in ex-Yugoslavia to the systematic and incredibly rapid slaughter of the Tutsis in Rwanda.

The dawn of what looked like a totalitarian era inspired long-seller novels such as Brave New World (A. Huxley) and even more famously 1984 by George Orwell. In the latter, the totalitarian experiment has been, so to say, entirely successful, and the state has managed to extend its control over every aspect of what was previously known as private human existence, including thought. Although the Huxleyan and the Orwellian regimes differ in a variety of manners, they share some fundamental features: both control human beings in some physical, biological sense (be it through drugs or through torture), they deprive them from ways of directing their own existence, they make up their intentions and beliefs, and ultimately leave no space for intimacy. The closest of each citizen’s friends is, in Orwell’s world, Big Brother, the omnipresent and yet never physically visible party leader. It is only through Big Brother, through the cult of his figure and his party that all other human interactions can occur. He is a filter, placed in the most private and unconscious part of his citizens’ psychological life, that morphs all matters of personal thought and intimacy into a public concern. In fact, the more intimate an experience is, the more it becomes public.

This brief and philosophical and literary reference of mine is not aimed at demonstrating that we live in an Orwellian world, nor that we are moving towards one, in a thoroughly totalitarian sense. That would be way too ambitious. Nonetheless, some of the recent developments in the global political economy and the technological sector do share certain rather worrying features with the Orwellian – as well as with the Huxleyan – dystopia. It would be perhaps too simplistic to come up with slogans like ‘From Big Brother to Big Data’, and it would sound a lot like the kind of headlines you would find on some conspiracy theorist’s flat-earth, vaccines-cause-autism and Bush-did-9-11 sort of blog. And yet, I am about to argue something close enough, so sit back, and brace yourselves.

In order not to sound too wishy-washy, I will invoke the help of a famous political philosopher, who developed his theory from within the prisons of one twentieth century totalitarian state: Antonio Gramsci. To make a long story short, Gramsci maintains that the structure of power that gives form to society and controls the individual is kept up through what he calls cultural hegemony. What he means by that is that the predominant ways of thinking, of forming value-judgments and common practices throughout a society are determined by the dominant class’s ideology. It is thus impossible to change society (for the better) without picking apart these hegemonic forces that penetrate so deeply into collective thought and practice to the extent that they are often disguised as common sense, or even as objective truths.

Hegemonic ideologies make it seem as if a certain way of living were not just the best way, but the only way.

Now, to understand what this has to do with Big Data we need a clear picture of what is meant with this increasingly popular – and vague – expression. The term can refer to a variety of new technological developments, ranging from medicine to agriculture, from urban planning to real time translation. It is the use of complex algorithms to analyse trillions of bits of data and thus identify tendencies, individual preferences and population patterns in ways that would have been unimaginable ten years ago. These analyses can then be used to predict how likely a patient is to develop cancer, what kind of seed a firm should plant in a certain field, or what the chances are of a rainy afternoon on my birthday.

PPE Journal - Photo - Big Data III
Photo credits: Encyclopedia Britannica. Antonio Francesco Gramsci (1891-1937) was an Italian Marxist philosopher and politician.

What is of most interest from an economic point of view is, however, that these technologies are changing the way we advertise, sell and buy goods and services in all sorts of markets. The digital revolution of the past two decades, advancing at an exponential pace, seems to be moving onto a new phase, where money as such has lost its centrality in favour of the direct exchange of services which in turn generates the accumulation of such data.  Many people enthusiastically refer to the ‘sharing economy’ – some others even call it the ‘Uber-economy’ – not just when talking about Uber but with a variety of other Silicon Valley enterprises in mind, such as Airbnb, eBay or Amazon. Broadly speaking, however, the same tendency is shaping businesses like Netflix, or Spotify, social networks such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp (all of which, apart from Snapchat, are owned by Mark Zuckerberg) or high tech giants like Google, Apple or Tesla. Some, like the Guardian journalist Paul Mason, even refer to this latest economic and technological development as ‘post-capitalism’, and think that it will signify the end of the current economic system.

The old and rusty incumbent multinational corporations, especially in the media market, try to reinvent themselves as platforms connecting people, rather than sellers trying to sell off their products. Unfortunately for them, the ‘financial multiplier’ of such firms – i.e. the number that the firm’s sales volume needs to be multiplied with to obtain its value in shares in the financial market – is barely above 1 for many traditional firms, whilst ‘new’ businesses benefit of such levels of confidence from financial markets that they can have share values of 3, 4, sometimes 10 times their actual sales. That means that the new tech giants have the advantage of immense, sometimes unjustified financial flows to invest in new, initially unprofitable ideas. Legacy firms struggle to adapt, and have reasons to worry.

Experts talk of ‘ecosystems’ – the Apple ecosystem, the Facebook ecosystem – when they describe the net of different platforms and services that these firms provide us with, using the most sophisticated techniques to make them absolutely necessary for us. In 2018, a world without smartphones appears ridiculous, and the smartphone market rotates around Apple. One would lose money and time without online shopping, and that service is predominantly provided by Amazon. Social media is deeply integrated in almost everyone’s daily routines, the vast majority of networks owned by Facebook. To sum up, platforms have replaced what used to be achieved through direct interaction. The same experts talk about ‘brain-hacking’ and ‘body-hacking’ when they refer to how our previously biological features – talking, doing sports, travelling, making friends, eating, and even having sex (how many of you use Tinder?) – are now constantly mediated by these technological ecosystems, mostly provided by monopolistic, Californian techno-financial giants.

To reach the cusp of what I am arguing here, the low prices or gratuitousness of many of these services – though not of all- iPhones are expensive… – can be understood in the following  terms: the companies provide us with the service we so fanatically think we ‘need’, and in return we give them either a service of our own, or the permission to sell the data they collect about us, or both. The service can be sold to other customers (think of Uber or Airbnb), the data can be sold to advertising companies (think of Facebook, Amazon, Google, fitness apps, Snapchat and many more) and the company makes up for the profit it lost while outcompeting traditional business models providing the same service. So what is exactly ‘post-capitalist’ about this model? Practically nothing.

On the contrary, this ‘new model’ meets all the prerequisites to turn into an Orwellian-Gramscian nightmare. Not only because this new market is dominated by global, obviously profit-seeking, monopolistic firms, but mainly because the ‘ecosystems’ we use to ‘hack’ our bodies and brains are giving those firms a very concrete tool to manipulate our desires, thoughts and interactions. If most aspects of a human being’s life are mediated by systems that work in a way determined by the fluctuations of the advertising market, or by a firm’s financial operations – if all sorts of intelligent devices collect data about us that is then sold and manipulated in order to show us personalised advertising for us to buy things, personalised campaigns for us to vote for politicians, personalised suggestions for us to change our lifestyles, find new partners, make new friends, visit new places…

Aren’t we being driven around like puppets in a digital show?


Photo credits: Getty Images/ Larry Ellis

Silicon Valley has managed to establish a very peculiar kind of cultural hegemony, and Big Data technologies are consolidating and expanding it, making our most intimate experiences a variable to be manipulated and ultimately commodified in the globalised data market. If you think I am exaggerating, try to Google ‘Big Data’ and see what comes up. Then do the same on YouTube, and listen to the experts I referred to above. One example, to get a taste of what I am talking about, can be found here. Political gossip about Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to become the Democratic candidate to challenge Donald Trump in the 2020 US presidential election has been roaming for quite some time. If true, Mr Facebook could soon be writing his first presidential post, and the rest of us will be left with the choice of what emoticon to use as a reaction. The hegemony is not solely virtual, it is a reality and it is stronger than ever.

The whole point about a hegemonic ideology is that we don’t realise that it is an ideology. Spotting the ideological content in the past century’s totalitarian movements was comparatively very easy. The ideological content of today’s globalised trends in the economy, by contrast, not being backed by state violence, torture or genocide, is harder to identify.

And yet, as Gramsci reminds us, it is when an ideology is invisible that it is most powerful, and can only be opposed with the most devote critical engagement.

This is not a plea for you to delete Facebook, unsubscribe from Amazon Prime and throw your iPhone into the bin. It is, rather, a casual invite to keep your eyes open, and to not fall into the trap. If, like Pinocchio, we want to turn from puppets into real human beings, we need to recognise the hegemonic forces that both influence and control us, and we more importantly, we need to start fighting back.


By Edoardo Lanfranchi

PPE Journal - Photo - Lanfranchi

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