Shoshana Zuboff thought up her three laws in the 1980s, and here in 2020 the third now fully applies, as completed prophesy: In the absence of countervailing restrictions and sanctions, every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control, irrespective of its originating intention.
In Laws of Media, Marshall and Eric McLuhan say every new medium or technology has four effects, of which one aligns with Shoshana’s third law: that every new medium or technology “reverses” or “flips into” some bad shit when pushed to its extreme.
We have arrived at that extreme with algorithmic driving of engagement on social media. This is now happening to a degree so extreme that we now live in a world where facts don’t matter and bulwarks of civilization, such as democracy and journalism, are being weakened or destroyed by algorithmically-driven hatred, distrust, typification, tribalization and and other forms of engaging but icky human tendencies.
Algorithms for driving engagement are damn near impossible to examine (even within the entities deploying them), and difficult at best to regulate. But they do have a business model: advertising. Specifically, tracking-based advertising.
The trade calls it adtech. Shoshana calls its model Surveillance Capitalism. Brett Frischmann and Evan Sellinger say it’s about Re-engineering Humanity. What matters is that it can’t be fixed. Not if we want to keep our moral hats on. That’s because tracking a person without their clear invitation or a court order is wrong on its face—as wrong online as it is offline.
It doesn’t matter that advertisers have spent $trillions by now on adtech, or that adtech funds “free” websites, services and apps. Tracking people off a site, a service, or an app on a phone without their invitation (not merely their permission) is simply wrong. Full stop.
The current shitty fix—allowing people to opt out of tracking on a site-by-site, service-by-service and app-by-app basis—is an absolute fail.
Opt-in might look better, but still sucks when it looks and works differently on every site, service and app—especially if we still have to agree everywhere to one-sided 10,000-word terms and privacy policies designed to cover asses other than our own.
It might be nice to try out a system by which one might request tracking, by truly trusted entities. But that will only work if people have their own way to requesting tracking, to proffer their own terms, to keep records of agreements, and to auditing compliance toward resolving disputes. Anything rigged by the sell side of the market will be more of the same.
Meanwhile, adtech is leveraging Zuboff’s Third Law and the McLuhans’ Fourth Effect to the max.
It won’t help to play nice guy with it.
Want to save democracy, journalism, civilization and stuff like that? As Chief Brody said to Captain Quinn in “Jaws,” “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
It’s not too late. Might even be early.
It should help to know that the Internet, the Web and the app marketplace are all still very young: as young as Earth was when it got clobbered by Theia, 4.5 billion years ago.
Four and a half billion years may seem like a long time, especially when you consider that it’s more than a third the age of the Universe, which came into existence about 13.8 billion years ago. But neither time span seems very long when you also consider that the Universe should last another trillion years or more. Against that time span, the Universe is just a startup.
So let’s think bigger than a boat. What’s our Theia?
To answer that, it will help to look at what has failed so far.
It should help to remember that Do Not Track was never more than a polite request not to be tracked away from a visited website. Also that it made sense as a polite gesture. See, here in the physical world, we send a similar request when we wear clothing to conceal the private parts of our bodies, when we draw curtains across the windows in our homes, or when we walk out of a building in faith that nobody is following us, because that would be creepy and ill-mannered.
But, in the absence of those manners and norms for respecting privacy, here on our primitive Internet, it was easy for the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), adtech’s trade association, to rally the whole online advertising business, including its dependents in online publishing, into ignoring Do Not Track. This effort was so successful that browser makers that had toyed with defaulting Do Not Track requests to “on” were cowed into compliance, in effect working for sites and services rather than you and me, and clearing the way for adtech to eventually dominate all of advertising online.
Naturally, ad blocking followed, becoming the biggest boycott in human history by 2015. We should pause here to note that people did that, along with the developers of ad and tracking blockers. Not the browser makers. Not government regulators.
Alas, the adtech industry fought ad blockers too—and still do. (Never mind that these send a clear signal of demand for privacy, which Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren plainly described, in The Right to Privacy, as “the right to be let alone.” Also a signal that people who block ads might be worth more as customers than those who don’t.)
Sure, it’s good that there are now countless browser extensions and add-ons to block tracking, ads or both. But they take work to put in and use, there’s no common experience of using them, and nobody around adtech—advertisers, agencies, publishers and other intermediaries—respect the economic and moral signals being sent by tracking protection and ad blocking. Instead, they’re fighting or ignoring them.
Next, in 2018 and 2019, came the GDPR in Europe and the CCPA in California. The GDPR seeks to thwart tracking of what it calls “natural persons” and “data subjects.” The CCPA seeks to make those collecting data about (and from) “consumers” comply with privacy requirements.
Alas, both regimes have thus far proven far better at adding friction to the browsing experience (with those annoying opt-out roadblocks on the front pages of most websites) than at stopping tracking itself.
What we still lack is a browser specifically made to stop all ads and all off-site tracking—while also framing up an Intention Economy that grows around market growth driven by vastly increased personal agency. This includes solutions to market problems that only customers can provide.
No browser does that yet. Ours will. Her name will be Theia. If you want to help out, let us know.