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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.