By using the Internet, we are the “users” by default and for Big Tech, the product being “sold”. The recent fiasco of data protection is born out of 20 years of an unregulated industry that has led to clear-cut crimes and pervading the personal lives of billions.
The use and sale of the new “oil” – data – by big tech companies has resulted in actions which completely oppose the “Don’t be evil” first line of Google’s original code of conduct, as Rana Foroohar, a Financial Times journalist, points out in her recent book Don’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech.
Unregulated growth and power of technological companies enable them to affect the economy, political processes, facilitate fake news, control habits and even affect our mental health.
Foroohar argues that tech companies never intended to do so much damage. She notes how Google could have never predicted “the many embarrassments that would emanate from the Googleplex: Google doctoring its algorithms in ways that would deep-six rivals off the crucial first page of its search results. Google’s YouTube hosting instructional videos on how to build a bomb. Google selling ads to Russian agents, granting them use of the platform to spread misinformation and manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Google working on a potential search engine for China – one that would be compliant with the regime’s efforts to censor unwelcome results.” (Don’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech, p. 19)
Our data “is the oil of the information age, and it fuels the growth of those companies that can run on it … the tech companies are simply the canaries in the coal mines for what will eventually become a much larger shift toward a surveillance capitalism system in which businesses and organizations of all stripes will take part”, according to Foroorhar. (Ibid, p. 33)
With the exponential rise of smart homes and devices like Alexa, Google Home and Siri, our data is mined not only from computers and mobile devices, but our voices. Mined data is used not only for targeted ads but to predict our next move, our next purchase and when or where we will go for our next holiday.
The data – which we often dish out ourselves – gives insight into our personal lives and, from an Islamic perspective, has created immoral and indecent echo-chambers where private lives are openly shared. The tentacles of big tech companies are widespread, long and powerful; serious consequences have arisen from allowing big tech companies remain unregulated.
Foroohar notes, “… election manipulation via platform technology continues to be a huge problem around the world, with Google and Facebook being used to oppress entire populations or even support genocide and murder in countries from Myanmar to Cameroon. There are some who believe technology is making us more vulnerable to fascism.” (Ibid, pp. 22-23)
Facebook has been blamed in playing a part in spreading fake news and right-wing sentiments prior to and during the recent insurrection at Capitol Hill, according to a New York Times report.
The piece showed how far-right individuals were rewarded through Facebook algorithms:
“Facebook’s algorithms have coaxed many people into sharing more extreme views on the platform – rewarding them with likes and shares for posts on subjects like election fraud conspiracies, Covid-19 denialism and anti-vaccination rhetoric.” (www.nytimes.com/2021/01/14/opinion/facebook-far-right.html)
In her book, The Age of Surveillance, Shoshana Zuboff describes the “Aware Home” project carried out in 2000 by computer scientists and engineers at Georgia Tech University. The Aware Home “was meant to be a ‘living laboratory’ for the study of ‘ubiquitous computing.’ They imagined a ‘human-home symbiosis’ in which many animate and inanimate processes would be captured by an elaborate network of ‘context aware sensors’ embedded in the house and by wearable computers worn by the home’s occupants.” (The Age of Surveillance, p. 14)
Due to the highly confidential data the Aware Home would provide, the scientists “assumed” that “the rights to that new knowledge and the power to use it … would belong exclusively to the people who live in the house … the team assumed that for all of its digital wizardry, the Aware Home would take its place as a modern incarnation of the ancient conventions that understand ‘home’ as the private sanctuary of those who dwell within its walls.” (Ibid, p. 15)
20 years on, the “Aware Home” is a reality with devices such as Google Nest Thermostat, but the assumption of those researchers 20 years ago has never been a reality.
Big tech and social media companies don’t only affect politics and data leaks; they have serious implications on cognition and mental health too.
Rana Foroohar powerfully explains, “One of the reasons that we haven’t yet figured out ways to curb the power of Big Tech – despite all the evidence of how it’s tearing at the fabric of our society – is simply that we are too busy being distracted by the bright and shiny products and services they make. It’s a cruel irony: We’re all too addicted to our gadgets and apps and Facebook pages to address the problems of technology. That gets to the most invasive part of Big Tech’s power: the power to manipulate our thoughts, actions and even our brains.”
Companies, like Facebook, purposefully use reward systems of our brain to make their applications more addictive: the ting of a new message and a constant flow of likes release shots of dopamine, creating a Pavlov effect on us. Terms like “Facebook depression” and the negative effects of social media on our children, described by researchers, are widespread and well documented – a topic we have discussed in past issues of Al Hakam. But this is where the problem lies, we feed big tech companies and the narrative of “this is how it is” has been so ingrained into users that people simply believe there is no other way of using the Internet other than the current system.
Nothing but the social construct of society is forcing us to upload private pictures and our lives onto Facebook – there isn’t any coercion per se other than what society “expects”. When people decide to unveil their private lives, they must be aware of the very serious repercussions.
Big tech companies offer great services and social media has its benefits, but as believers, we must keep in mind all the teachings we have been given to navigate life in a wholesome and beneficial way. The rise of social media and big tech companies have also, unfortunately, created immoral and indecent online environments towards which even believers are being dragged.
Setting aside the leaks of data we cannot control, it is imperative to keep checks on what data we voluntarily post and whether we are creating and contributing towards online echo-chambers that go against basic Islamic principles of modesty and decency.
It is not without reason that Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa has delivered countless sermons and spoken widely about our responsibilities as believers when using social media and the Internet.
Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih Vaa said:
“Evil was somewhat restricted before this age. The evil of the neighbourhood remained in the neighbourhood; a city’s evil stayed in the city and a country’s evil remained in the country. At worst, neighbours would be affected by an evil. Now, however, with the ease of travel, television, Internet and various media, these individual and localised evils have turned into international evils.” (Friday Sermon delivered on 6 December 2013)
Talking about the rise of Facebook, its effects and usage, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih Vaa said:
“These days, a new method of introduction has been created on the computer and the Internet called Facebook. Though it is not that new, but it was introduced in the last few years. I had previously discouraged you from this practice. I had said in my sermons that it encourages immodesty. It shatters the boundaries among people, boundaries from one another, boundaries around secrets. It exposes secrets and invites indecency.”
The “Aware Home” concept has become the public home where the walls of privacy continue to fall and “evils” spread. Until we become mindful and act on the control we all have, the harmful effects of Internet technology will continue to grow.