I can’t take credit for the title of this post but it sums up an issue that we all face - we trade our privacy for convenience. This line is from an episode of Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast which featured “reformed” Silicon Valley insider Roger McNamee. McNamee, who was one of the early investors of Facebook, is now on a mission to warn the world of its evils. And its not just Facebook itself, but the addictive and exploitative nature of the business models that underpin internet platform companies built on the attention economy. McNamee was lamenting the fact that he has repeatedly tried (and repeatedly failed) to stop using Google products. Even making a concerted effort to choose alternatives, he inevitably finds that in order to participate – in a specific group, business, organization, or ironically, in Harris' podcast – it somehow leads back to using a Google product. Quitting Google is hard. I’ve found this to be true.
My masters program focuses on communications and technology. We study the impact of technologies, especially social media and other communication technologies, from a socio-cultural perspective. Yet, even though we understand the challenges and the risks, we are not immune to the system. We are consumers of these products just as much as anyone.
My university uses Google products for our student emails, Google hang outs for group meetings and Google drive for sharing documents. On our first week of class, someone set up a Facebook messenger group which has been an active space for our cohort to have discussions outside of the official university e-classroom. Professors have “strongly encouraged” that we both follow their Twitter accounts and post to Twitter as part of certain courses. One of the courses in the program, in the name of learning about new media, has assignments that require signing up on platforms like Pinterest, which left to our own devices, we might never have tried. My reading group decided to gather on Slack to organize our materials. It wouldn’t really be possible to opt out of using these tools. They are a necessary part of participating in this program and for participating in modern life in general. Let’s face it – they’re useful!
Yet, when we click accept on the terms of reference that none of us reads, we are agreeing to a whole slew of conditions that none of us really understands. Sure, we know that we’re being tracked, that our data is being sold to other organizations, that government is also in on the surveillance game and that companies are using our information to manipulate us. We perhaps don’t understand the scope of these activities until we are told about it by a whistleblower like Snowden or see the investigation into Cambridge Analytica. But even then….we go back.
If data is the new oil, then artificial intelligence is the refinery and we are the reservoir. Primarily, these resources are owned by a handful of companies. How much of these resource do we want extracted and what exactly do we want them to be used for? How do we make actual trade-offs and not just mindlessly comply?
McNamee is not alone. He’s joined by a growing contingent of tech savvy insiders, people like Jaron Lanier, Cal Newport and Tristan Harris. While some of their practices might seem extreme, their voices are a necessary counterpoint in order to have a dialogue about these issues. If you’re interested in knowing how you can be less exposed online, here is a resource from a fellow University of Alberta student, Kris Joseph, about how to protect your privacy online. Some of this might be less convenient, but at least you’ll have some clothes on the next time you’re wandering through the Googleplex.
Harris, S. (Host). (2017, March 27). The Trouble with Facebook: A conversation with Roger McNamee [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://samharris.org/podcasts/152-trouble-facebook/
Hern, A. (2019, February 16). Roger McNamee: 'It's bigger than Facebook. This is a problem with the entire industry'. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/16/roger-mcnamee-zucked-waking-up-to-the-facebook-catastrophe-interview.
MacAskill, E., & Topham, L. (n.d.). 'They wanted me gone': Edward Snowden tells of whistleblowing, his AI fears and six years in Russia. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2019/sep/13/edward-snowden-interview-whistleblowing-russia-ai-permanent-record.
Staff, W. I. R. E. D. (2018, March 22). The Cambridge Analytica Story, Explained. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/amp-stories/cambridge-analytica-explainer/.