The political form of postmodernism, if there ever is any, will have as its vocation the invention and projection of a global cognitive mapping, on a social as well as a spatial scale.
—Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Logic of Late Capitalism
On the morning of 18 February 2021 Australia awoke to find itself at war. While the nation slept, powerful digital saboteurs cut the cords that bind the nation together, severing connections to its most popular and most important sources of factual information. The majors—Seven West, Nine–Fairfax, News and the ABC—all suddenly went dark. Fortuitously, radio and television broadcasters escaped the carnage, or the nation may have had no way of informing itself about the surprise attack.
Coming during a week when bushfires continued to threaten the outer suburbs of Perth, catastrophic flooding cut roads throughout Queensland, and at the end of the first year of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the timing seemed particularly malign. Too much could happen: this was no time to be poorly informed.
Triaging the damage produced by the attack, Australians noted a number of essential services had also been taken out in the strike, such as domestic violence hotline 1800RESPECT and the Bureau of Meteorology. But the collateral damage reached far beyond these sites, to science outlets such as NASA and Cosmos magazine, even silencing the satirical offerings of the Chaser and the Betoota Advocate. There seemed little rhyme or reason to any of it, certainly nothing that felt like a well-planned and executed attack on the nation’s informational infrastructure. Instead, it felt like the proverbial dummy-spit.
When you realise that one of the belligerents in this war was no nation, but a trillion-dollar multinational monopoly controlled both in the boardroom and from the C-suite by a 37-year-old who has never known any other experience as an adult than to sit at the centre of a vast and exceptionally profitable enterprise that collects data on, well, basically everyone, then uses the leverage provided by that surveillance to shape its destiny, you get a sense of the truly odd and asymmetric nature of this conflict. No need for lobbing bombs nor invading hordes; this attack produced a chaotic gap in the communications infrastructure of the nation. All this damage wreaked simply by blocking some sites on Facebook.
It feels long past time to wonder how things got to this point: where a private company could run a standover operation on a sovereign nation. The warning signs have been evident for years, both in the continual privacy abuses of Facebook and in its monopolistic business practices, which finally caused the unstoppable force of the social media giant to collide with the immovable object of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
As Australians realise that they are dangerously beholden to a handful of ‘Big Tech’ firms, collectively worth around 10 trillion dollars (nearly a decade of economic output), we must assess the immediate threat to the nation’s sovereignty, map out the future under these new powers, then consider—if we decide we value national agency over convenience—how to work ourselves out of the pit we have dug ourselves into.
What are these new powers? The recently legislated Media Bargaining Code identifies ‘dominant’ market players—coded language for the monopolistic reach and policies of Google and Facebook. To these we must add Apple, collecting nearly 90 per cent of all profits generated via the sale of smartphones and associated apps, propelling it to the status of world’s most valuable company.
On the surface, these companies could not be more different from one another. Google does search, Facebook social media, and Apple creates devices and services. In reality, each competes for our attention. Apple builds devices and apps so captivating we struggle to put them aside, fostering a world where checking our smartphone hundreds of times a day seems to be perfectly normal, rather than an activity bordering on addictive compulsion. Google uses our searches to build a profile of our needs and wants, selling that data to marketers, while simultaneously using it to target advertising into our web browsers and smartphones with ever-greater precision.
Facebook uses all of the information revealed by our ‘social graphs’ (who we connect with), learning from our sharing activities what sorts of information keep us ‘engaged’—Silicon Valley newspeak for the compulsion to scroll, infinitely—building a precise simulacrum of every user’s activities, feelings and capacities.
All three firms constellate their activities around what Zeynep Tufekci calls out as ‘surveillance capitalism’—mining and commodifying the private activities of the self. The business of surveillance capitalism has grown exponentially over the past decade. By 2021 the aggregate value of these three firms exceeded US$6 trillion. There’s gold in them thar users.
How did these monopolies arise? Google, Facebook and Apple have all been accused of being anti-competitive. Google and Facebook have been sued by the US federal and state governments for a range of shady business practices. Yet those practices are not the only reason these companies have assumed such gargantuan dimensions. Much of their growth relies on three phenomena that each company found a way to exploit: Google with ‘path dependency’, Facebook with ‘network effects’, and Apple with ‘walled gardens’.
The march of ants through a kitchen provides an excellent example of path dependency. Each ant lays down a tiny bit of a scent trail that other ants follow, who also lay down more scent trails, attracting more ants, and so on—until that path attracts all the ants.
Google puts path dependency to work in its search engine, using each of the billions of searches fed into it each day to refine its results—based on which link a user follows after a search. That makes Google a very good search engine—not because of Google’s ability to search the web, but because of its ability to watch its users’ responses to its search results.
In Australia, where Google gets around 90 per cent of all search traffic, path dependency means that for topics of relevance to Australians, it simply works better. Because it works better, Australians tend to use it more, making it even better, leading to more users. Like so many ants, Australians lay down a single path to Google’s search box.
Facebook benefits from another phenomenon, known as the ‘network effect’: the value of the network to its users is the square of the number of connections in that network. Network effects mean that a social network with five people is only one-quarter as useful as a social network with ten people—and only one four-hundredth as interesting as a social network with 100 people.
Facebook successfully fought off a range of earlier social networks—Friendster, MySpace and Orkut, among many others—becoming the first social network to reach 10 million users, then a hundred million, then a billion users. As a social network with a billion users has a trillion times the usefulness of a social network with a mere million users, Facebook quickly became a ‘natural’ monopoly, offering its users the benefits of overwhelming human connectivity, something they could not get anywhere else.
Apple cleverly leveraged users’ need for safety and stability into a fortress-like business model known as the ‘walled garden’, completely controlling the publication and sale of all apps in their smartphone and tablet operating systems. App developers must submit their apps to Apple for approval, must sell them through Apple’s App Store with Apple taking a 30 per cent share of the sales price, plus 30 per cent of any follow-on ‘in app’ purchases. Apple can also deny an app developer access to the App Store for any reason they deem valid.
Apple claims to do this for quality control, ensuring apps available on its devices meet its stringent standards for useability and security, promising that a rogue app will not spirit away any of the information secreted on a smartphone. This is a problem that has bedevilled Google’s competing—and far more permissive—Android smartphones. Though these points have the ring of truth, they hide a darker motivation: Apple’s role as ultimate gatekeeper has also kept any potential competitors off the platform, or so restricted them that they cannot distinguish themselves as serious competitors to Apple’s walled garden.
Each of these strategies has worked brilliantly: path dependency made Google the go-to for search; network effects make Facebook synonymous with the internet in countries such as Indonesia and Pakistan; its walled garden has nourished Apple with eye-watering profits. In pursuit of those profits, these monopolies have done everything in their power to bend the world to their ends. That has had consequences that extend far beyond the business realm.
Private mind versus private property
Unlike the ‘natural monopolies’ of electricity, gas and water, which passed through their own moments of exploitation and abuse more than a century ago, the Big Tech monopolies do not change the scope of our capacities in the world. Instead, they transform the way we see the world. These are technologies of perception. Using them means we have no choice but to accept the view of the world they offer us.
In China—Apple’s largest market for its smartphones—the content of its App Store is strictly controlled not just by Apple but also by the Chinese Communist Party, ensuring that no app presents an unfriendly view of the party, its actions, or China more generally. Apple even agreed to locate its messaging servers within China, giving the authorities physical access to the service. In both America and Australia, Apple advertises its messaging as private. Privacy is part of Apple’s brand—except where it would interfere with sales.
As a result, Chinese iPhone users have a substantially different experience to that of users elsewhere, an experience shaping their expectations and understanding. More than just a dumb device, the smartphone has become a platform through which we think; restrictions on what that device can access inevitably shape the sorts of thoughts one can entertain while using it.
Just as Apple carefully curates what appears on the device, so Google puts the lion’s share of its trillion dollars of resources into curating search results in the world beyond the device. When you type a search term into Google, the result—generally delivered within a second—represents the outcome of a wrestling match between what you’re searching for and what Google wants you to see.
Although Google claims that their infrastructure provides the most relevant search results to its users at all times, the firm has been repeatedly revealed as manipulating those results to drive traffic to either its own services or the services of its closest commercial partners. While Google likes to call its product ‘organic search’—as though search results grew naturally out of the fertile ground of the web—Google Search is arguably the most processed product in human history, carefully massaged to promote Google’s commercial interests, partners and advertisers. This tension between user needs and commercial imperatives means that Google’s search results always represent a compromise. They’re good enough to keep you coming back, but they’re also sufficiently manipulated to direct your attention wherever Google wants you to land.
Apple’s and Google’s behind-the-scenes activities to shape user possibilities and perceptions pale next to Facebook’s. A decade ago the social media giant confronted a paradox: as more people joined the service, its network effects multiplied, and users found themselves drowning in a sea of updates from all of their connections. As Facebook grew bigger, it grew more noisy and less useful.
To counter this existential threat to growth, Facebook developed the idea of newsfeed ‘curation’—selectively showing updates from connections. Curation implies some sort of decision, and here—as documented by Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism—Facebook took a page from Google’s playbook, entering into a dedicated program of user surveillance, using those observations to build a ‘profile’ of each user and using that simulacrum as the decision engine for feed curation. Facebook watches its users, finds out what keeps them ‘engaged’ (that is, consuming) and sends them more of the same, carefully cherry-picking from all the possible items that could go into their feed those that have already been noted as most likely to produce deep engagement.
More than two billion people have their connections to their friends, family and communities mediated by this surveillance, profiling and engagement machinery. A raft of studies demonstrate that engagement with Facebook tends to drive people towards more extreme views, precisely because they’re being fed postings that tend to reinforce those views. (The paradox here is that you can reinforce someone’s views both by sending them items in their feed that agree with their views, and, conversely, by populating their feeds with posts that disagree with their views. Both are equally engaging, and, by Facebook’s logic, equally worthy.)
So, your view of the world is shaped by the device you buy, the search engine you use, and the social network you use to connect. That’s the inescapable consequence of engaging with technologies that shape our perception of the world. Like water, our minds take the shape of the vessel. While we may have to accept this as the price of admission to a world of ease and connectivity, that does not mean we must meekly accept any commercial enterprise that presents itself as a ‘natural monopoly’ over our perceptions on its own terms.
We need counterarguments and counterpoints to these monopolies. Alternatives do exist—but they come with caveats.
State of mind
Is the free market more important than a free country? We have always imagined that these two ideas of Western liberalism went forth hand in hand; one of the foundational tenets of liberalism unites the free movement of capital and the free flow of ideas. What happens when liberalism culminates in a dilemma where either capital or freedom can be respected, but not both?
We have an excellent example of what happens when capitalism overwhelms freedom—the People’s Republic of China. From the moment Deng Xiaoping pronounced ‘To get rich is glorious’, the Chinese state leaned into capital, creating enormous wealth unfettered by any democratic pretensions. The state’s interests have so completely aligned with the interests of capital that to be rich in China means to be acting as an arm of the state.
As China developed its digital infrastructure—producing a local crop of billionaire tech CEOs—it used state power to consolidate the sector into three giants: Baidu, China’s search engine, its Google; Alibaba, an e-commerce giant larger than Amazon that via its payments arm, AliPay, plans to turn itself into a massive supplier of financial products throughout Asia; and Tencent, a maker of everything from videogames to the social network WeChat and payments processor WePay. These ‘big three’—‘BAT’ as they’re informally known—occupy roughly the same monopoly positions that Google, Apple and Facebook do in Australia.
To maintain their state-sanctioned monopolies, each firm acts as state censor, immediately removing any content deemed injurious to the interests or even the perception of the state, and allowing the Chinese Communist Party to fill their organisations with large numbers of functionaries—the equivalent of ‘political commissars’, ensuring that these giants remain intensely loyal to the party.
This means that Baidu’s search is blind to any elements of Chinese history, or the history of the party, that disagree with the official narrative; it means that all conversational topics in WeChat messaging are monitored, and can be shut down. It means that to buy or sell online through the nation’s largest retailer requires being on good terms with the state. Thus the alignment of capital with power for illiberal ends has shaped Chinese perceptions in ways that benefit and perpetuate a one-party state.
Western liberalism no longer provides an effective counterargument to China’s ‘digital authoritarianism’. The alignment of capital with the liberal values of free speech and the free flow of ideas ingloriously culminated with the Capitol riot, a product of digital ‘ignorance amplifiers’—the products and services of perception, tools that shaped and reinforced extremist beliefs while simultaneously providing a mechanism for group identification, planning and action.
In the immediate aftermath of the event, Amazon and Apple moved to ‘deplatform’ Parler, a social network identified as a main coordination point for the Capitol riot. Parler ran its servers on Amazon’s vast web infrastructure, and offered its app through Apple’s App Store, losing access amid a rising set of questions about the balance between freedom of speech, public safety and private profit.
The response of capital to these radical moments of group action has been to ‘deplatform’ the actors, depriving them of access to their digital tools for self-expression and organisation, an act simultaneously both necessary for public safety and breathtakingly illiberal. That dilemma illuminates the tension of the moment: these tools have become so essential to the operations of culture that it stinks of collective punishment when whole communities—and not just the bad actors—are forced off these platforms.
Whether targeted at extremist communities or, in the case of Facebook’s war with Australia, at a national level, to force changes in policy, the violence inherent in deplatforming has already generated an equal and opposite reaction. Centralised giants such as Facebook and Google face a new class of Lilliputian threats: radically decentralised, resilient against censorship, largely invisible, favouring affiliation over hierarchy and reach over scale. Built from the same core technologies as cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, these new ‘anti-platforms’ (such as BitClout) offer users the chance to thumb their nose at both monopolists and ever more watchful governments. These anti-platforms have been in development for a few years, never seeing significant adoption— until Parler went offline. ‘The Internet regards censorship as damage,’ runs the maxim from internet pioneer John Gilmore, ‘and routes around it.’
Our future looks monopolised—both by the state and by multi-trillion-dollar corporations with as much power as a nation. It also looks wildly anarchic. In the continuum of conversations that comprise twenty-first-century culture, some voices will try to command our attention by shouting from the heights; others will whisper softly in our ears. Those quiet voices—often the most persuasive—will tempt us down paths that the culture at large might want us to avoid. At that point we will know whether the free market trumps a free country.
A vast conflict has begun to unfold, as individuals and nations wrestle with Big Tech for control of their perception. Freedom from commercial interference, though necessary, will not be enough. We need freedom to share thoughts that disrupt the tidy truisms of the day-to-day. We need to be free to be subversive, revolutionary, even diabolical. Only then can we find the agency we need to be creative, constructive and angelic. •
Mark Pesce is a futurist, inventor, columnist, honorary associate at the University of Sydney and he hosts The Next Billion Seconds podcast. His eighth book, Augmented Reality, was published in November 2020.