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?