This week, a pertinent debate on tech criticism with Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who broke open the Cambridge Analytica story for The Guardian and The Observer, and Yael Eisenstat, former CIA officer who worked on election integrity inside Facebook for six months, brought me to this other interesting article by Lee Vinsel: You’re Doing It Wrong: Notes on Criticism and Technology Hype.
Vinsel’s thesis is that while being aware of potential problems of technology is a good thing, there is an increasingly critical thinking and writing which is parasitic and inflates hype: the criti-hype.
First, I examine a clear case of contemporary criti-hype: how the film The Social Dilemma and Shoshana Zuboff’s book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, overstate the abilities of social media firms to directly influence our thoughts and provide near zero evidence for it. Second, I offer a preliminary history of how criti-hype became an academic business model by taking a look at the examples of the Human Genome Project, nanotechnology, “AI,” and a few others. Third, I talk about some of the costs of criti-hype and offer some solutions before ending on a thoroughly pessimistic note.
Criti-hype comes with real costs. First, it helps create a lousy information environment and lends credibility to industry bullshit. Second, criti-hype distracts us from real world problems and suffering that are happening right now. Just two pearls of how (wrong) incentives corrupt the system:
Once someone researching the social implications of synthetic biology told me that the field was, in her estimation, mostly salesmanship and bullshit. “That’s what you need to write then,” I told her. She said that if she told the truth she would lose access to the people she was studying, and since she was planning to do this research for much of the rest of her career, that wasn’t an option. Here, social science becomes as bad as the worst forms of access-preserving journalism.
McKinsey says 60 percent of occupations would have 1/3 of their activities automated by “AI.” (…) McKinsey says this because it sells consulting services to firms and wants executives in those firms to believe they will be soon be dealing with a radically transformed environment. In other words, McKinsey wants to scare the shit out of us.
Then NYU’s AI Now Institute cites McKinsey’s report as a credible source (it wasn’t one) and says that policymakers should take it seriously and put money into examining the problems it identifies
The attribution of superpowers to some technologies, like AI or synthetic biology, and some companies, the Big Tech, is one of the modern myths. It is a myth made of good intentions (anticipate and prevent risks) + sheer difficulty to actually understand the details behind those new technologies + wrong incentives (academic publish or perish, plus personal branding).
In How to destroy surveillance capitalism, Cory Doctorow presents a lucid analysis of the situation. The term Surveillance Capitalism was coined by Shoshana Zuboff in her long and influential 2019 book:
Zuboff argues that “surveillance capitalism” is a unique creature of the tech industry and that it is unlike any other abusive commercial practice in history (…) Surveillance capitalism challenges democratic norms and departs in key ways from the centuries-long evolution of market capitalism.” It is a new and deadly form of capitalism, a “rogue capitalism,” and our lack of understanding of its unique capabilities and dangers represents an existential, species-wide threat. She’s right that capitalism today threatens our species, and she’s right that tech poses unique challenges to our species and civilization, but she’s really wrong about how tech is different and why it threatens our species. What’s more, I think that her incorrect diagnosis will lead us down a path that ends up making Big Tech stronger, not weaker. We need to take down Big Tech, and to do that, we need to start by correctly identifying the problem.
Zuboff assumes that because advertisers buy a lot of what Big Tech is selling, Big Tech must be selling something real, and that surveillance literally robs us of our free will. She puts enormous and undue weight on the persuasive power of surveillance-based influence techniques.
Doctorow thinks (and so do I) that the vulnerability of small segments of the population to dramatic, efficient corporate manipulation is a real concern that’s worthy of our attention and energy. But it’s not an existential threat to society.
I reject the idea that tech is uniquely terrible and led by people who are greedier or worse than the leaders of other industries, and I reject the idea that tech is so good — or so intrinsically prone to concentration — that it can’t be blamed for its present-day monopolistic status.
I believe that online tools are the key to overcoming problems that are much more urgent than tech monopolization: climate change, inequality, misogyny, and discrimination on the basis of race, gender identity, and other factors. The internet is how we will recruit people to fight those fights, and how we will coordinate their labor. Tech is not a substitute for democratic accountability, the rule of law, fairness, or stability — but it’s a means to achieve these things.
I do think that tech poses an existential threat to our society and possibly our species. But that threat grows out of monopoly.
The hard problem of our species is coordination (i.e. collective intelligence)
Just to be fair, the present government of the US is also very aware of the problem, and they have taken the time to understand and carefully document the case against US Big Tech (btw, if you read carefully, you will find traces of criti-hype in the text):
The open internet has delivered significant benefits to Americans and the U.S. economy.
The online platforms investigated by the Subcommittee—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google—also play an important role in our economy and society as the underlying infrastructure for the exchange of communications, information, and goods and services.
Over the past decade, the digital economy has become highly concentrated and prone to monopolization. Several markets investigated by the Subcommittee—such as social networking, general online search, and online advertising—are dominated by just one or two firms. The companies investigated by the Subcommittee—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google—have captured control over key channels of distribution and have come to function as gatekeepers.
This significant and durable market power is due to several factors, including a high volume of acquisitions by the dominant platforms. Together, the firms investigated by the Subcommittee have acquired hundreds of companies just in the last ten years. In some cases, a dominant firm evidently acquired nascent or potential competitors to neutralize a competitive threat or to maintain and expand the firm’s dominance. In other cases, a dominant firm acquired smaller companies to shut them down or discontinue underlying products entirely—transactions aptly described as “killer acquisitions.”
Facebook has monopoly power in the market for social networking.
Facebook’s monopoly power is firmly entrenched and unlikely to be eroded by competitive pressure from new entrants or existing firms.
Facebook has also maintained its monopoly through a series of anticompetitive business practices. The company used its data advantage to create superior market intelligence to identify nascent competitive threats and then acquire, copy, or kill these firms.
In the absence of competition, Facebook’s quality has deteriorated over time, resulting in worse privacy protections for its users and a dramatic rise in misinformation on its platform.
Google has a monopoly in the markets for general online search and search advertising.
Google’s dominance is protected by high entry barriers, including its click-and-query data and the extensive default positions that Google has obtained across most of the world’s devices and browsers. A significant number of entities—spanning major public corporations, small businesses, and entrepreneurs—depend on Google for traffic, and no alternate search engine serves as a substitute.
Google maintained its monopoly over general search through a series of anticompetitive tactics.
A second way Google has maintained its monopoly over general search has been through a series of anticompetitive contracts.
Since capturing the market for online search, Google has extended into a variety of other lines of business. Today Google is ubiquitous across the digital economy, serving as the infrastructure for core products and services online.
Internal communications also reveal that Google exploits information asymmetries and closely tracks real-time data across markets, which—given Google’s scale—provide it with near-perfect market intelligence.
Amazon has significant and durable market power in the U.S. online retail market.
As the dominant marketplace in the United States for online shopping, Amazon’s market power is at its height in its dealings with third-party sellers. The platform has monopoly power over many small- and medium-sized businesses that do not have a viable alternative to Amazon for reaching online consumers.
Amazon achieved its current dominant position, in part, through acquiring its competitors, including Diapers.com and Zappos. It has also acquired companies that operate in adjacent markets,
Amazon has engaged in extensive anticompetitive conduct in its treatment of third-party sellers. Publicly, Amazon describes third-party sellers as “partners.” But internal documents show that, behind closed doors, the company refers to them as “internal competitors.”
Voice assistant ecosystems are an emerging market with a high propensity for lock-in and self-preferencing.
Finally, Amazon Web Services (AWS) provides critical infrastructure for many businesses with which Amazon competes. This creates the potential for a conflict of interest,
Apple has significant and durable market power in the mobile operating system market.
Apple’s mobile ecosystem has produced significant benefits to app developers and consumers. Launched in 2008, the App Store revolutionized software distribution on mobile devices, reducing barriers to entry for app developers and increasing the choices available to consumers. Despite this, Apple leverages its control of iOS and the App Store to create and enforce barriers to competition and discriminate against and exclude rivals while preferencing its own offerings. Apple also uses its power to exploit app developers through misappropriation of competitively sensitive information and to charge app developers supra-competitive prices within the App Store. Apple has maintained its dominance due to the presence of network effects, high barriers to entry, and high switching costs in the mobile operating system market.
Apple is primarily a hardware company that derives most of its revenue from sales of devices and accessories.
In the absence of competition, Apple’s monopoly power over software distribution to iOS devices has resulted in harms to competitors and competition, reducing quality and innovation among app developers, and increasing prices and reducing choices for consumers.
However, will US government have true incentives to actually deal with US Big Tech monopolies?
Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon may have reach their privileged position competing in a free market but the tolerance and/or indifference to many of their abusive practices today can be ascribed to the sheer lobbying muscle they have. Furthermore, there is surveillance capitalism and then there’s state surveillance. And there is no mass state surveillance without mass commercial surveillance.
Without Palantir, Amazon, Google, and other major tech contractors, U.S. cops would not be able to spy on Black people, ICE would not be able to manage the caging of children at the U.S. border, …
Will the government of the US cut the wings of US Big Tech, when there is a tough competition with Chinese Big Tech and China’s own Surveillance Capitalism? This is the Big Conumdrum.
To debunk a myth is always a herculean task. Two headlines by Bloomberg and WSJ provide a simple summary: Democrats’ Big Tech Antitrust Proposal Is a Legislative Moonshot, and ‘Too Complex to Break Up’ Is the New ‘Too Big to Fail’
So, I’m afraid there is pleny of room (and time ahead) for bullshit and criti-hype.
I am looking forward to Vinsel’s announced longer essay “Don’t Believe the Hype!: Anticipatory Governors and the Political Economy of STS,” (And his intriguing message: Why Arizona State University is such a center of criti-hype.)