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Armed with information

The data behemoths have great power, but they aren’t invincible

Armed with information

(Krieg Barrie)

In July 1995, Jeff Bezos sold his first book on an internet site called Amazon.com. True to tech-wizard legend, he shipped the volume from his garage in Seattle. Anyone with an ounce of computer savvy could have done the same, and before long many did; what set Bezos apart was his vision for online marketing.

It was not about books. Amazon was up-front from the beginning about using customer data to offer personalized service and make recommendations. Digital processing made possible, for the first time, the collection and sorting of an unimaginable amount of personal information. Once Amazon had assembled a customer profile based on book preferences, it could use that information to sell that customer anything. The business world laughed at Amazon’s failure to make a profit for the first six years, not realizing that the company was amassing huge wealth in data. It began to pay off in 2001, and eventually made Amazon the world’s largest retailer.

As the song goes, “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the earth was round.” Amazon and the other online Big Four (Google, Apple, and Facebook) said the earth was information, and nobody’s laughing now.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg dramatized the problem with his public apologies for allowing political operatives to access Facebook data. Alarm is spiking at this new monopoly, or “data-opoly.” Computers and smartphones once meant unprecedented access to information and free expression, writes libertarian blogger Glenn Reynolds in USA Today. “Now your devices have turned into tools for governments and corporations to keep tabs on you in ways that have never been possible before.” Our devices devise against us.

Google, Facebook, and Apple are imposing their ethics on the public they engage every hour of every day.

In the Harvard Business Review, Maurice Stucke listed nine reasons why data-opolies threaten self-rule and stability. The reasons include security breaches, government “capture” of information, strangling competition, even the addiction-by-design to portable devices that began with Apple’s iPhone. All of these are significant concerns, but the most consequential for Christians may be moral and political: “Namely the ability to affect the public debate and our perception of right and wrong.”

The founders and CEOs of the Big Four tout their commitment to diversity, but ideologically they march in lockstep. James Damore should know. He’s the Goggle staffer whose well-intentioned memo about why women occupy so few top-level positions (suggesting it might be due to the nature of women) got him fired. He’s filed a class-action suit against the company, citing a corporate culture of groupthink called (I’m not making this up) the Googly Way: The detailed brief alleges required seminars in approved opinions, constant putdowns of Caucasian males, denigration of Christians and Republicans, and harassment of any employee who dares express non-Googly views.

If the Googly Way were confined within the company, it would be a company problem. But Google, Facebook, and Apple are imposing their ethics on the public they engage every hour of every day. Apple has removed some Christian apps from its online store. Google-owned YouTube has blocked or demonetized conservative videos. Facebook has appointed itself a curator of news, real and “fake.” It’s no stretch to imagine Christian teachers and bloggers blacklisted, not by government, but by company execs who control the flow of information. Even private conversations are not reliably private, if an electronic “personal assistant” like Alexa or Siri is listening for your next request.

Damore’s suit is trudging through the court system and may put a welcome check on the excesses of Silicon Valley. Glenn Reynolds and others are calling for a new age of trust-busting. But the data blob will only get bigger, and no law will keep every manipulator at bay.

What can we do about it?

An old hypnotist’s adage says that you can’t hypnotize an unwilling subject. Data-opolies can only manipulate the thinking of people who are not clear about what they think. That may be our primary calling in this misinformation age: Think clearly. Know what you believe, and why. Don’t shield your children from bad ideas, but teach them better ideas grounded in God’s Word. Know the truth, and it will keep you free.

This column has been updated to correct the description of how political operatives from Cambridge Analytica obtained Facebook data.

Comments

  • D
    Posted: Fri, 04/13/2018 10:40 am

    I make my living collecting data on people.  In my conversations with people about this issue, they often throw up their hands and say, "So what?  I got nothing to hide." 

    This article barely scratches the surface.  You have never heard of my company, but we can and have (at the request of law enforcement) generated a list of people who were in this city on this date and another one states away at another date, between certain ages and of a certain ethnicity.  And that's even without being one of these personal data giants, who can record everything you do and click on and even where you pause while scrolling, and feed all that data into a machine learning algorithm that's watching your every move and learning all the time.  The machine doesn't just know your name, birthdate, and friends list.  It knows what you like and what you don't, knows your daily schedule, knows what you buy and eat, knows whether you agreed with that article or not, knows whether you support or oppose the LGBTQ agenda even if you never post a thing about it, knows who you're going to vote for.  It's all sitting in the machine.  It's mostly just used to try to sell you stuff and get you hooked on pointless games to generate ad revenue - for now.

  • Bob C
    Posted: Fri, 04/13/2018 12:35 pm

    George Orwell’s predicted world in his book “1984”, published in 1949, is in the process of coming true!

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 04/14/2018 11:25 am

    Hm, I wonder if fewer women work for Google because fewer of us would put up with that kind of nonsense...

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 04/17/2018 01:33 pm

    Laura, your post intrigues me, but I do not fully understand what you mean. Will you please clarify it? Thanks in advance!