The flap of a butterfly’s wings can cause a tornado an ocean away. This phrase, often used in the prologues of dystopian sci-fi films and stemming from a seminal 1972 lecture by Edward Lorenz, pertains to chaos theory, which mathematically describes the extreme unpredictability of certain dynamical systems that are violently sensitive to initial conditions. Very minute changes generate astronomically different outcomes.
In metaphysics, the multi-verse theory – which seeks to explain human existence and the current state of the world – also postulates that the effects of practically negligible changes in the initial conditions of the universe, particularly its physical laws and constants which were determined immediately after the Big Bang, would make it impossible for human life to exist as it does today (for some, this suggests our existence isn’t mere coincidence, for others it proves it).
When looking at our digital existence, at the Internet’s past, present, and future, we should keep those concepts in mind.
Last week, I argued that we are living at the time of greatest change in human history. I believe the impact of what has been collectively done, and what we will do over the next few years, will determine the shape and structure of human existence for decades to come.
We live in a world that is digitally controlled by what has come to be known as GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), to which I would add Microsoft. The oft-mentioned duopoly of Google and Facebook, which is beginning to fall in the crosshairs of regulators, particularly in Europe, is really an oligopoly of Silicon Valley titans that have amassed an unfathomable trove of personal information, which in turn has been used to generate profits that make oil companies foam at the mouth.
Without regards for privacy, they’ve created a new dimension that has permeated every aspect of our lives. Devices, operating systems, applications and social platforms that have vastly improved our lot, granting us access to unlimited amounts of information in real time and literally at our fingertips. In exchange not for cash, but for our data, which they then turn into cash.
‘GAFA+M’ have become the most powerful agents in the digital world, outpacing sovereign nations and their militaries, which are only beginning to notice how far they’ve gone and looking for ways to control them, as governments like to do. Their invaluable technological innovations will be the cornerstones of our digital future, but, if left to its own, their uncontrollable ambition and competition could lead us straight into George Orwell’s darkest nightmares.
In his dystopian film Ex Machina, director Alex Garland explores the concept of artificial intelligence through Nathan Bateman, the genius founder of the world’s largest and dominant search engine. Using the largest data set of personal information ever amassed, Bateman can fully map out every personality – our search engine results reveal our tastes and preferences, where we’ve been and what we like, and even our darkest secrets from our stupidest purchases to what pornography we’ve looked for – which in turn he uses to build robots that will finally pass Alan Turing’s famous test, tricking another human being into believing they are human. His robots, of course, developed a sense of self and emotion, which leads to tragic results.
In truth, it’s not necessary to use fiction to illustrate the power of ‘Big Data,’ it became explicitly clear in Donald Trump’s surprise electoral victory in the US presidential election. In their brilliant article, “The Data That Turned The World Upside Down,” journalists Hans Grassegger and Michael Korgerus describe how the academic development of psychometrics used to measure psychological traits was used by electoral marketing firm Cambridge Analytica to help the Trump campaign design its strategy with incredible precision.
Using data sets generated on Facebook, along with personal information that is legally available for sale including addresses and phone numbers, Cambridge Analytica built profiles for 220 million US adults dividing them into 32 personality types, allowing the Trump campaign to target undecided or potentially convincible voters with granular detail. The rest is history.
It’s not just about robots and electoral manipulation. Google and Facebook’s move into the world of news has allowed the dissemination of professional journalism to hundreds of millions of people, but nefarious side-effects are looking increasingly ominous. The rise of so-called ‘fake news,’ a sort of bastard child born to Google’s display ad network and Facebook’s powers of amplification, has led to real violence in the physical world. Attempts to block dangerous and negative content has led to Facebook censoring real journalism and historical images, such as the award-winning picture of a crying, naked girl after a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.
Advertisers are also suffering, seeing their products promoted next to Jihadist propaganda or hate speech. Google and Facebook’s dominance in absorbing digital advertising dollars, as mentioned last week in this column, isn’t only damaging traditional media players.
Pure-play digital content creators including BuzzFeed, Vice and HuffPost (formerly The Huffington Post) have a hard time turning a profit these days, and therefore investing in better journalism too. While media companies have the obligation to adapt to a new digital world that is faster and more competitive than they would like, the tech giants are abusing their unfair advantage, putting professional journalism at risk with the free distribution of information at their discretion.
In Spain and Germany, legislators passed a so-called “link law” forcing Google to pay publishers for displaying their content in search results and news aggregators. But Google played hard-ball, closing down its News product in Spain and eliminating the “snippets” or preview in Germany, driving down publisher traffic and forcing them to come back with their tails between their legs. Mark Zuckerberg’s social network, which has recently been accused of being a “quasimonopoly” by Germany’s anti-trust regulator for collecting “limitless” amounts of data, of which its users are oblivious, is the target of a probe by a European privacy task force for its unscrupulous collection of data across various products, including WhatsApp messaging app, having already been fined in Italy, Spain, and France. And, as the recent Paradise Papers leak demonstrated, Silicon Valley’s elite have become experts at the art of tax optimisation. Clearly, GAFA+M have the capacity to operate past the reach of the long arm of the law.
All of this is problematic, not just for ethical reasons – it could begin to undermine democracy and freedom of thought. Through their risk, investment, and innovation, GAFA+M have shaped the digital world we live in, and that deserves high praise. Yet, remembering Lorenz’s butterfly effect, the rules and incentives that are defined today will determine the evolution of our digital existence going forward. If we don’t address these pressing concerns soon, these crucial decisions will be made for us, with our tacit, yet blind, consent. As they are being made today.