A Civil Rights Company?

Photo by Youssef Sarhan on Unsplash

Much has been made of Tim Cook’s advocacy on issues of privacy and gay rights. The most recent iteration of Safari that was unveiled at WWDC will incorporate techniques that hinder, though won’t entirely stop, advertisers and websites from tracking users across the Internet. And Apple continues to support and promote gay rights; the most evident manifestations of this is Apple selling pride-inspired Apple Watch bands and a matching pride-based watch facealong with company’s CEO being an openly gay man.

It’s great that Apple is supporting these issues. But it’s equally important to reflect on Apple’s less rights-promoting activities. The company operates around the world and chooses to pursue profits to the detriment of the privacy of its China-based users. It clearly has challenges — along with all other smartphone companies — in acquiring natural mineral resources that are conflict-free; the purchase of conflict minerals raises fundamental human rights issues. And the company’s ongoing efforts to minimize its taxation obligations have direct impacts on the abilities of governments to provide essential services to those who are often the worst off in society.

Each of the above examples are easily, and quickly, reduced to assertions that Apple is a public company in a capitalist society. It has obligations to shareholders and, thus, can only do so much to advance basic rights while simultaneously pursuing profits. Apple is, on some accounts, actively attempting to enhance certain rights and promote certain causes and mitigate certain harms while simultaneously acting in the interests of its shareholders.

Those are all entirely fair, and reasonable, arguments. I understand them all. But I think that we’d likely all be well advised to consider Apple’s broader activities before declaring that Apple has ‘our’ backs, on the basis that ‘our’ backs are often privileged, wealthy, and able to externalize a range of harms associated with Apple’s international activities.

The Roundup for May 12-18, 2018 Edition

Soar by Christopher Parsons

It’s become incredibly popular to attribute the activities undertaken by the Facebooks and Googles of the work to ‘surveillance capitalism’. This concept generally asserts that the current dominant mode of economics has become reliant on surveillance to drive economic growth. Surveillance, specifically, is defined as the act of watching or monitoring activity with the intent of using captured information to influence behaviour. In the world of the Internet, this information tends to be used to influence purchasing behaviours.

The issue that I have with the term surveillance capitalism is that I’m uncertain whether it comprehensively captures the activities associated with the data-driven economy. Surveillance Studies scholars tend to apply the same theories which are used to understand CCTV to practices such as machine learning; in both cases, the technologies are understood as establishing feedback loops to influence an individual or entire population. But, just as often, neither CCTV nor machine learning actually have a person- or community-related feedback loop. CCTV cameras are often not attended to, not functional, or don’t provide sufficient information to take action against those being recorded. Nor do individuals necessarily modify their own behaviours in the presence of such cameras. Similarly, machine learning algorithms may not be used to influence all persons: in some cases, they may be sufficiently outside the scope of whatever the algorithm is intended to do that they are not affected. Also, like CCTV, individuals may not modify their own behaviours when machine learning algorithms are working on the data those individuals are generating on the basis of being unaware of machine learning operating on their data.

So, where surveillance capitalism depends on a feedback loop that is directly applied towards individuals within a particular economic framework, there may be instances where data is collected and monetized without clear or necessary efforts to influence individuals. Such situations could include those where a machine learning algorithm is designed to improve a facial recognition system, or improve battery life based on the activities undertaken by a user, or to otherwise very quietly make tools more effective without a clear attempt to modify user behaviour. I think that such activities may be very clearly linked to monetization and, more broadly, an ideology backed by capitalism. But I’m not sure it’s surveillance as it’s rigorously defined by scholars.

So one of the things that I keep thinking about is whether we should shift away from the increasingly-broad use of ‘surveillance capitalism’ to, more broadly, talk about ‘data capitalism’. I’m not suggesting doing away with the term surveillance capitalism but, instead, that surveillance capitalism is a sub-genus of data capitalism. Data capitalism would, I believe, better capture the ways in which information is collected, analyzed, and used to effect socio-technical changes. Further, I think such a term might also capture times where those changes are arguably linked to capitalist aims (i.e. enhancing profitability) but may be less obviously linked to the feedback loops towards individuals that are associated with surveillance itself.


After approximately twenty months of work, my colleagues and myself have published an extensive report on encryption policies in Canada. It’s a major accomplishment for all of us to have finally concluded the work, and we’re excited by the positive feedback we’ve received about it.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

“Ambition is a noble passion which may legitimately take many forms… but the noblest ambition is that of leaving behind something of permanent value.”

– G.H. Hardy

Great Photography Shots

Some of these storm chaser photos are practically otherworldly.

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

Aside

Young, rich and totally not buying a house

In Toronto there’s a small group of people that are responsible for spending big and not thinking about the longer-term implications of their decisions now. This article highlights the current life that one such person has, with lots of time spent on how much he travels and drinks and parties while he travels. The subject of the piece consistently devalues experiences that are inexpensive, a devaluation of those who decide to have a family, and a broader (incorrect) focus on life just being about what wine you drink or what car you (temporarily) drive. It’s definitely one of the lowest ‘hate reads’ I’ve come across in recent memory.

Quote

[Mark Carney’s] prescription: End through strict regulation and resilience tests the scandal of too-big-to-fail, where “bankers made enormous sums” and “taxpayers picked up the tab for their failures.” Recreate fair and effective markets with real transparency and make every effort — through codes of conduct and even regulatory obligations — to instill a new integrity among traders (even if social capital cannot be contractual). Curtail compensation offering large bonuses for short-term returns; end the overvaluing of the present and the discounting of the future; ensure that “where problems of performance or risk management are pervasive,” bonuses are adjusted “for whole groups of employees.”

Above all, understand that, “The answers start from recognizing that financial capitalism is not an end in itself, but a means to promote investment, innovation, growth and prosperity. Banking is fundamentally about intermediation — connecting borrowers and savers in the real economy. In the run-up to the crisis, banking became about banks not businesses; transactions not relations; counterparties not clients.”

In other words, human beings matter. An age that has seen emergence from poverty on a massive scale in the developing world has been accompanied by the spread of a new poverty (of life and of expectations) in much of the developed world. Global convergence has occurred alongside internal divergence. Interdependence is a reality, but the way it works is skewed. Clinton noted that ants, bees, termites and humans have all survived through an unusual shared characteristic: They are cooperative forms of life. But it is precisely the loss at all levels of community, of social capital, that most threatens the world’s stability and future prosperity.

* Roger Cohen, “Capitalism Eating Its Children
Quote

Though Silicon Valley’s newest billionaires may anoint themselves the saints of American capitalism, they’re beginning to resemble something else entirely: robber barons. Behind the hoodies and flip-flops lurk businesspeople as rapacious as the black-suited and top-hatted industrialists of the late 19th century. Like their predecessors in railroads, steel, banking, and oil a century ago, Silicon Valley’s new entrepreneurs are harnessing technology to make the world more efficient. But along the way, that process is bringing great economic and labor dislocation, as well as an unequal share of the spoils.

* Rob Cox at Reuter. Go read his whole essay, “Silicon Valley’s underserved moral exceptionalism