The Great Hack Wasn't A Hack And Big Tech's Problems Aren't Really About Big Tech

from the symptoms-not-the-disease dept

There must be some irony in the fact that the well-hyped documentary film about Cambridge Analytica/Facebook, called The Great Hack was released by Netflix — a company who really is kinda famous for trying to suck up as much data as possible to build a better algorithm to keep you using its service more — and potentially violating people’s privacy in the process. I know it’s ancient history in terms of internet years, and everyone has decided that Facebook and Google are the root of all internet/data evils, but back in 2006, Netflix launched a contest, offering $1 million to anyone who could “improve” its recommendation algorithm over a certain threshold. It took a few years, but the company awarded the $1 million to a team that improved its algorithm — though, it never actually implemented that algorithm, claiming that the benefits “did not seem to justify the engineering effort.”

But, perhaps more interesting, was that while the contest was ongoing, some computer scientists de-anonymized the dataset that Netflix had released, leading some to point out that the whole project almost certainly violated the law. Eventually, Netflix shuttered its plans for a follow up contest as part of a legal settlement regarding the privacy violations of the original.

So, perhaps feel a bit conflicted when Netflix’s vaunted algorithm recommends “The Great Hack” for you to watch.

This is not to say the documentary is not important, but it does highlight our troubling desire to immediately point fingers and describe certain things as “evil.” Even the name — The Great Hack — is ridiculously misleading. Nothing Cambridge Analytica did involved a “hack” in the way most people think of the word. Yes, you could argue that it was a “hack” of the larger system — using Facebook’s platform in a way that was not intended, but easily done, but it didn’t involve any technical proficiency. Just a willingness to use the data that way.

But, it’s interesting to me to see the press rush in to use the documentary as the exclamation point to the narrative that’s become popular these days: that Silicon Valley is too obsessed with collecting data as a business model. Janus Rose, at Vice, has a big piece that describes the movie as a condemnation of “surveillance capitalism.”

The real ?great hack? isn?t Cambridge?s ill-gotten data or Facebook?s failure to protect it. It?s the entire business model of Silicon Valley, which has incentivized the use of personal data to manipulate human behavior on a massive scale.

Emily Dreyfuss at Wired, paints a similar portrait:

In that way, The Great Hack is a modern horror story. The villain is Cambridge Analytica, yes, but also Facebook, and all the systems that let people become manipulated by the digital psychological clues they leave through their lives. It’s terrifying because it’s true.

Natasha Lomas at TechCrunch, points out that Netflix is revealing “the defining story of our time” in the transactional nature of data on social platforms:

But in displaying the ruthlessly transactional underpinnings of social platforms where the world?s smartphone users go to kill time, unwittingly trading away their agency in the process, Netflix has really just begun to open up the defining story of our time.

Oddly, none of them mention Netflix’s algorithm and history. Ah, right. Because the narrative these days is Facebook/Google/Silicon Valley. Netflix has mostly migrated south to Hollywood. And, Hollywood and the media industry have no history at all of “manipulating” the public. Nope, no history of that at all.

None of this is to absolve Silicon Valley and the big tech companies — who really have done a piss poor job of thinking through the consequences of basically anything they’ve done, but forgive me for being marginally skeptical when the same industries that have a long history of pushing propaganda and trying to manipulate audiences in one direction or another suddenly start clutching pearls at the new kids on the block.

And if you want to point fingers, there are lots of directions they could go as well. All the internet haters seem to have glommed onto Shosana Zuboff’s term “Surveillance Capitalism” as a sort of shibboleth to the savvy to show that you know (you know) those internet companies are truly evil in their hearts. But taken to its logical extreme, one might as well blame Wall Street. When you have a company, say, like Pinterest, that tries to avoid social media “growth hacking” then Wall St. punishes it. Witness the ongoing freakout through the past few months from Wall St. as it grapples with Alphabet/Google’s revenue growth slowing.

If companies are constantly being told that they have a “fiduciary duty” to increase the stock, and Wall Street flips out any time they can’t keep growing at insane, unsustainable rates, is it any wonder that all of the incentives lead us to a place where companies focus heavily on growth?

Again, this is not an excuse. It’s all a problem. But we don’t solve large societal problems by picking off one symptom of the disease that’s really just a link in a larger societal chain. Surveillance capitalism is a symptom. Abusive data practices are a symptom. Propaganda and political grandstanding are symptoms. There are big societal problems at the root of all this — but very few seem to be interested in exploring what they are and how to deal with them. Instead, we just get one part of the surveillance capitalist propaganda machine to convince everyone that another part of the surveillance capitalist propaganda machine is the problem. And, because that bit of propaganda is successfully manipulative and compelling, lots of people buy into it.

The narrative is here and it won’t be changed.

Now, what does Netflix recommend we watch next?

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Companies: facebook, google, netflix

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Comments on “The Great Hack Wasn't A Hack And Big Tech's Problems Aren't Really About Big Tech”

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46 Comments
Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Root causes

"Again, this is not an excuse. It’s all a problem. But we don’t solve large societal problems by picking off one symptom of the disease that’s really just a link in a larger societal chain. Surveillance capitalism is a symptom. Abusive data practices are a symptom. Propaganda and political grandstanding are symptoms. There are big societal problems at the root of all this — but very few seem to be interested in exploring what they are and how to deal with them. Instead, we just get one part of the surveillance capitalist propaganda machine to convince everyone that another part of the surveillance capitalist propaganda machine is the problem. And, because that bit of propaganda is successfully manipulative and compelling, lots of people buy into it."

This collection of symptoms point to the underlying base, Humans (and greed). None of those symptoms would exist without either humans or greed. If we eliminate either of those, the problem would cease to exist.

Now I am not suggesting that human kind kill itself off, and I don’t see any readily available cure for greed, but there is a certain remedial effect in recognizing the causes of symptoms, especially when the disease is psychological (the greed part). Acceptance that one is impacted is a major step to crossing the river of denial.

Of course the greed part will be minimized by many as an existential part of capitalism, but I don’t think that is actually true. Turning profit, and turning egregious profit are not one in the same. Wall Street with its:

"…flips out any time they can’t keep growing at insane, unsustainable rates…"

seems to think egregious is a minimal step toward their expectations and desires.

Getting the world to agree on some form of control for the ‘Wall Streets’ of the world does not seem like a credible goal as greed and power tend to go hand in hand and, those in power want to keep it (power), and their greed (greed, of course, is not expressed monetarily in all instances) in perfect running order. Yet there it is, and a possible cog in the solution set necessary to resolve the issue.

Or is it problem? That might depend upon perspective, but there are probably more of us than them, even if they are, for now, in control.

Anonymous Coward says:

This whole article is a giant whataboutism.

What was your real point, Mike? That Netflix is just as evil as all the tech giants? That PII collection is pervasive and there is nothing we can do about it? Something else?

We’re all aware of the data collection on a ridiculous scale and all the bad that can (and has) come of it. But I don’t read anything here that is an argument for anything, just finger pointing despite Netflix not being in the news for any kind of data exposure recently.

urza9814 (profile) says:

It's "Surveillance CAPITALISM"

"All the internet haters seem to have glommed onto Shosana Zuboff’s term ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ as a sort of shibboleth to the savvy to show that you know (you know) those internet companies are truly evil in their hearts. But taken to its logical extreme, one might as well blame Wall Street."

Well, yeah, that’s why it’s surveillance capitalism rather than surveillance tech. It’s all about the profit motive. That’s neither a negation ("But…") nor an "extreme" as far as I can tell; it’s just a definition of the term…

As long as companies are willing to dump money into these technologies, it’s not going to stop. As long as such companies are profitable (and often even when they aren’t), VCs are going to pump money into them.

Now, we can try to regulate that away…but that probably requires some high level of public outrage. Which these kinds of movies might help create, although if the people being outraged don’t fully understand the problem, and the legislators aren’t understanding the problem (often willfully), then that’s still not going to help much. And of course, the companies profiting from this kind of abuse use the profits to hire lobbyists…I don’t expect that avenue to yield much success unless the whole damn system gets reformed.

So the other option is to go after the profits directly. Lawsuits might help, although that goes along with the regulatory aspect, probably not going to be enough by itself. Convincing people to stop buying this crap would be the other option, but how do you do that when most people don’t know and don’t WANT to know how any of it actually works? When everyone USES FACEBOOK to discuss how upset they are with the Cambridge Analytica stuff?

Sometimes I fear we might just be too late. People are too accustomed to using computers without thinking, without reading, without researching…hell, I literally can’t get SOFTWARE ENGINEERS that I work with to read THREE FREAKIN’ LINES of output from a program. If it doesn’t do exactly what they expect with a single click, they tell you it’s broken. They don’t care how it works, they don’t care what else it does, all that matters is the instant gratification.

Of course, sometimes I also think the problem is just a matter of advertising. We’ve got the technology, we could drop Facebook for distributed social network platforms tonight if a sufficient number of people could be convinced to do so. But years of advocacy doesn’t seem to be doing much. Scandal after scandal after scandal convinces approximately zero people to make the switch. So now what…?

I feel like people are going around and around and around discussing minor nuances of what the "real problem" is…but nobody’s got a solution…and neither do I. At this point I’m just trying to keep my own network safe from this garbage, and that alone occupies a significant majority of my free time…

Anonymous Coward says:

So all we have to do is solve human greed and shortsightedness? Well gosh it’s so simple, there’s no reason to attempt to mitigate the amplification effect that technology has on human fallibility when it’s just so easy to eliminate the underlying fallibility in the first place! Our ancestors must have been pretty dumb not to have taken care of this hundreds of years ago — it’s so simple, you know? Why take NyQuil, when you could be trying to cure the common cold instead?

I mean, it can’t be that Mike has some reason to deflect any sort of effective remedy for the harms caused by specific, nameable tech giants, by insisting that we solve the unsolvable before we try to ameliorate the increased damage their technologies have abetted… could it?

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I mean, it can’t be that Mike has some reason to deflect any sort of effective remedy for the harms caused by specific, nameable tech giants, by insisting that we solve the unsolvable before we try to ameliorate the increased damage their technologies have abetted… could it?

Take the tinfoil off your head and spit it out – cry Google and get over it.

I’m looking forward to seeing your well written article where you tell us the real solution. Please link to your blog so we can read it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The structure of your comment leads me to believe that you are the same person who wrote this flagged comment here.

I will say what I said in reply to that comment then: I agree with the general sentiment of your comment, which criticizes Mike for asking people to solve the unsolvable "big societal problems" as if he wants us to forget about doing anything about big tech. But your implications, again, are likely that Mike wants to see these companies grow ever richer and ever larger, like he’s in cahoots with Google or whoever.

Really, from what I’ve seen, Mike espouses a particularly ludicrous brand of techno-utopianism that requires he give infinite benefit of the doubt to companies with malicious and greedy patterns of behavior. Mike’s ideology means he can never bring himself to say that these companies and the folks that call the shots at them are greedy or malicious, so he consigns euphemisms to their greedy and malicious actions, such as that they’re just "doing a bad job" or that they simply don’t think through the consequences of their actions.

Anonymous Coward says:

None of this is to absolve Silicon Valley and the big tech companies

You constantly absolve Silicon Valley and the big tech companies. You do it by saying shit like this:

— who really have done a piss poor job of thinking through the consequences of basically anything they’ve done

Repeatedly insisting that they’re just doing a bad job and never think things through all the way, as if they’d stop fucking people over and lying for profit if they just took some time to mull over their decisions more thoroughly.

The truth is that these companies and the people working at them don’t give a shit about the consequences as long as it makes them money and no amount of time spent thinking it over would make them change their minds.

Let’s look at Facebook. Facebook’s Friendly Fraud should’ve been the last straw for anybody trusting them. But according to you, countless employees turning a blind eye to shit like this for years because it makes more money for Facebook is just them doing a "piss poor job", "a really, really awful job", like they’re a bratty kid that’ll learn their lesson eventually if we just keep pointing out when they do a "bad job".

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

A few things…

I know Janus Rose. I wouldn’t be a chip musician if I didn’t see her play a game boy with an LSDJ cartridge live and want to do the same thing. I owe her plenty for my current choice of career.

So that makes Sebastian Tomczak (LittleScale, a.k.a. the guy people on TechDirt know as the guy who got flagged on youtube for having similar sounding noise to someone else), Bryce Case (YTCracker, a.k.a. Grindr’s security chief and a legendary hacker), and now Janus Rose (Zen Albatross, as per this article) as people I know in my musical life who made it onto TechDirt. Geez, Mike, I appreciate the attention, but come on! 😉 😛

Third,

And if you want to point fingers, there are lots of directions they could go as well. All the internet haters seem to have glommed onto Shosana Zuboff’s term "Surveillance Capitalism" as a sort of shibboleth to the savvy to show that you know (you know) those internet companies are truly evil in their hearts. But taken to its logical extreme, one might as well blame Wall Street.

You’re acting as if people don’t do this already. Wall Street is often blamed as the root problem more so than the tech companies themselves.

Anonymous Coward says:

All the internet haters

It’s easy to tell when something has struck a nerve with you, because you come off like a 5 year old whining about the mean kids picking on poor little Google.

Have you considered the possibility that the people you call "internet haters" are actually people who love the internet, but hate the fact that a few massive corporations have essentially taken full control of it?

Ojai_guy (profile) says:

Greed

I would recommend a series made in 1977 by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith entitled ‘The Age of Uncertainty’. This ivy league professor’s series deals with historys record on culture, politics, economic and its relationship with self-interest(greed). Self interest can be packaged in almost infinite parcels, packed with the various complexities dictated by our religious, economic, political, social etc.,etc…. experiences in life. The variations of this mix is astronomical and may never be able to be effectively managed. Case in point, all the comments made on this subject smack of self-interest on the writers part

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