Shoshana Zuboff’s three laws, which she thought up in the 1980s, were pure prophesy. And none applies more ominously today than her third law: 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 also 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 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 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, however, isn’t that it can’t be fixed, but that it shouldn’t. Not if we want to keep our moral hats on. That’s because tracking a person without an 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 without their invitation (not merely their permission) is simply stalking, and very 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 seem like a better system, except that it can’t be one. Not when it looks and works differently for us on every site, service and app—and when we still have to agree everywhere to unfriendly 10,000-word terms and privacy policies designed to cover their asses and not ours.
And yes, it might be nice to try out a system by which one might request tracking. But that will only work if people have their own way to do that. They should also be able to proffer their own terms, keep their own records of agreements, and audit compliance. But little of that is in the works, while adtech continues to grow, along with surveillance capitalism and the re-engineering of our brains and lives.
So. Want to save democracy, journalism, civilization and stuff like that, here in our new Digital Age?
It should help to think of that age as one that’s very new: so new that we are now roughly at the stage Earth was at when it got clobbered by another planet called Theia, 4.5 billion years ago.
Humans weren’t here to watch, but it now seems likely (at least to science) that we owe to Theia our water, our days and nights, our seasons, and our Moon. Could be we have none of those yet here on Digital Earth. Which will last how long? Hundreds of years? Thousands?
Perspective: 4.5 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 span seems very long when you also consider that the Universe will last another trillion years or more. Meaning the Universe is just a startup.
So: what’s our Theia?
To answer that, it will help to look at what has failed so far.
Let’s start with Do Not Track. Conceived in 2007 by Sid Stamm, Chris Saghoian and Dan Kaminsky, Do Not Track was just a polite request not to be tracked away from a visited website. Here in the physical world, we signal 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.
But, in the absence of manners and norms for respecting privacy in the dawning years of the 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. Even the major browser makers were cowed into compliance, in effect working for sites and services rather than for you and me. This happened in the 2012-13 time frame, and cleared the way for adtech to dominate all of advertising online.
Naturally, ad blocking followed Do Not Track’s failure, becoming the biggest boycott in human history by 2015. We should pause here to note that people did that, helped by developers of ad and tracking blockers. Not browser makers, regulators or tech giants. People.
But it wasn’t enough, because the adtech industry fought ad blockers too—and still do. (They also never got the signal that people who block ads might be worth more as customers than those who don’t.)
Next came the GDPR in Europe and the CCPA in California, which arrived in 2018 and 2020. Alas, both have thus far proven 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 need is a browser built 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. Only a browser like that will both destroy adtech and clear the way toward better ways of treating each other and doing business.
No browser does that yet. Ours will. Her name will be Theia. If you want to help out, let us know.