The Internet Ideology : Why We Are Allowed to Hate Silicon Valley

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The rhetoric is as lofty as it is revolutionary

Reason number one:  Silicon Valley firms are building what I call “invisible barbed wire” around our lives. We are promised more freedom, more openness, more mobility; we are told we can roam wherever and whenever we want. But the kind of emancipation that we actually get is fake emancipation; it’s the emancipation of a just-released criminal wearing an ankle bracelet.

Yes, a self-driving car could make our commute less dreadful. But a self-driving car operated by Google would not just be a self-driving car: it would be a shrine to surveillance – on wheels! It would track everywhere we go. It might even prevent us from going to certain places if we our mood – measured through facial expression analysis – suggests that we are too angry or tired or emotional.  Yes, there are exceptions – at times, GPS does feel liberating – but the trend is clear: every new Google sensor in that car would introduce a new lever of control. That lever doesn’t even have to be exercised to produce changes in our behavior – our knowledge of its presence will suffice.

Or take MOOCs. They would undoubtedly produce many shifts in power relations. We know of all the visible, positive shifts: students getting more, cheaper opportunities to learn; kids in Africa finally taking best courses on offer in America, and so on. But what about the invisible shifts? Take  Coursera, a company that was started by a senior Google engineer and that has quickly become one of the leaders in the field. It now uses biometrics -- facial recognition and typing speed analysis – to verify student identity. (This comes in handy when they issue diplomas!) How did we go from universities with open-door policies to universities that check their students with biometrics? As Gilles Deleuze put in a 1990 conversation with Tony Negri, “compared with the approaching forms of ceaseless control in open sites, we may come to see the harshest confinement as part of a wonderful happy past.” This connection between the seeming openness of our technological infrastructures and the intensifying degree of control remains poorly understood.

What does this invisible barbed wire mean in practice? Suppose you want to become a vegetarian. So you go to Facebook and use its Graph Search feature to search for the favorite vegetarian restaurants of all your friends who live nearby. Facebook understands that you are considering an important decision that will affect several industries: great news for the tofu industry but bad news for the meat section of your local supermarket.

Facebook would be silly not to profit from this knowledge – so it organizes a real-time ad auction to see whether the meat industry wants you more than the tofu industry. This is where your fate is no longer in your own hands. Sounds silly – until you enter your local supermarket and your smartphone shows that the meat section offers you a discount of 20%. The following day, as you pass by the local steak house, your phone buzzes again: you’ve got another discount offer. Come in – have some steak! After a week of deliberation – and lots of cheap meat -- you decide that vegetarianism is not your thing. Case closed.

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