The talks and workshops at Camp Digital covered many different aspects of digital, but the talk I found the most thought-provoking was by Emer Coleman, who asked us to question the role of ethics within technology, and touched on the dark side of big tech corporations.
Emer kicked off the talk by giving us a little bit of history of what her life was like growing up in Ireland. Unable to get birth control or read women’s magazines, Emer was regularly reminded of a woman’s place in the world by The Irish Constitution. The arrival of the internet brought her freedom, in a world that had little before.Her first experience of the internet was one of openness, where your gender, age and race were whatever you said they were, and there was no way for anybody to know if you were who you claimed to be. That was then. This is now. We willingly share lots of information about ourselves so our anonymity is gone, but do we really know how much personal data is stored about each of us?
Her first experience of the internet was one of openness, where your gender, age and race were whatever you said they were, and there was no way for anybody to know if you were who you claimed to be. That was then. This is now. We willingly share lots of information about ourselves so our anonymity is gone, but do we really know how much personal data is stored about each of us?
Facebook stores up to 800 pages of personal data per user account, including basic demographic information, such as race, sex and marital status, as well as all our posts, likes and check-ins. Wolfgang Schmidt, former Stasi officer, said ‘this would have been a dream come true for us, so much information on so many people.’. Emer asks: ‘Why do we trust Facebook with our data? Because they say they won’t do anything bad? Because it’s free?’.
Emer challenged the audience to think of the implications this amount of data could have had in times when someone could be murdered for simply being the wrong race or religion. Emer reminded us that ‘just because you didn’t pay for it, doesn’t mean it’s free’.
Emer then switched the topic to the rise of ‘FAKE NEWS’, and the impact this has recently had in the American Presidential election. Many people blame Facebook and Twitter for the rise of ‘fake news’ articles during the election, for the downfall of Hilary Clinton, and the rise in popularity of Donald Trump during this critical time. With many people now looking to big tech corporations for their daily news, they now hold a responsibility to make sure the information they are sharing is relevant and honest. Voter choice can be influenced around 25% based upon Google rankings, and there’s a direct correlation between search engines and trust.
Emer put to the audience; ‘Would you trust a politician with the largest share of wealth on the planet?’, ‘How about the biggest trove of private data?’ or ‘The most significant influence machine ever?’.
Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, has been rumoured to be running for president in 2020. Emer asked the audience to reflect on what kind of influence Zuckerberg could have with his large wealth, private data, control over information flow and the biggest influence machine ever. With all of these resources Zuckerberg could ride the fake news wave all the way to winning the presidential election.
Facebook was a contributing factor into the spread of fake news during the 2017 Presidential campaign. With many criticising large tech companies for not doing enough to counter the spread of fake news during this time, does the rise of the internet pose a real threat to democracy?
Emer then moved on to discuss the role we play in the rise of these large tech companies, and how we contribute to the profit they are making. Imagine a factory worker, making cotton. Is he only producing cotton? No, he is producing capital. Fast forward to the digital age, when you like or comment on your friends Facebook post, are you only corresponding? No, you are producing capital, and are offering this for free to these large companies.
In April 2012, Facebook bought Instagram for a total of $1 billion. The Instagram service relies on users to provide the content, and users to interact with the content, however the user is not the one profiting from the content they provide. So why should a company make so much profit out of the content we provide for free? Karl Marx would say we’re in danger of becoming digital drones.
Emer concluded by saying we have had a long love affair with technology, and would not be able to live without our iPhones and Smartwatches. However, we happily give away our data for products and services for free. When will this stop? Do we consider technology to have such a fundamental role in our lives that ethical scrutiny no longer applies, or can we work together to shape our future in a more ethical and inclusive way? Only time will tell.
This talk has made me think about the way large tech corporations are operating and using data readily provided by their users, and the way they, and we, could become more ethically responsible. Emer Coleman is not simply saying ‘Don’t use Facebook’, but instead is asking us ‘Why is it ok for them to do what they do with their data?’.
Slides are available at: http://www.wearesigma.com/campdigital/2017/emer-coleman/