Several years ago, my friend John said with a look of disgust, “If you’re not a customer, you’re a product”. He was talking about computers and the Internet. That dictum is the topic for this post, which is dedicated to him. He passed away on May 24, ’21 at age 57.
I met John in 1991 at the community college where I taught. He worked briefly in our computer lab, before moving to Fermilab – America’s particle physics research facility in Batavia, IL, where he was a programmer and administrator, dealing with the public. John was involved in computer science since the explosion of PC’s “useable by just about anyone” as scholar Prof. Wolfe from U. Rhode Island states in this overview and time-line. Computer tech is the fastest growing technology in history, which makes some people say its effects for good or ill can’t be predicted. So far, not so good. 15 years before I met John, George Lucas’ 1977 sci-fi film Star Wars introduced the world to robots – C-3PO and his sidekick R2D2. Much has changed since then.
Today, S.T.E.M. training (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has the highest pay growth potential for successful college graduates. The computer science and tech subsets of S.T.E.M. represent the top of these prospects. All high school students use computers, and many take courses related to computer science, but realistically the entry level for top level employment is an MS degree, that represents a lot of time and money. There are work/ study options, but it’s a long, costly haul.
This S.T.E.M. emphasis competes with humanities (my subject area), which is losing students. I could wish a ’rounded education’ were possible, but that’s another issue.
John watched this expansion and demand for computer literacy his whole adult life, so he knew well the internet phenomenon, and critiqued it for me, as well as helping solve my frequent technical IT problems. I used a desktop ‘tower’ computer at school and home until retirement; then went to a PC laptop a decade ago. It was only in 2007 that smartphones were in everyone’s hands, thanks to Steve Jobs and Apple. I got a smartphone to contact my employer on the road if needed. Incidentally, 2007 was the year of the Global Financial Crisis – also called the Great Recession – in which IT played a large roll, especially in terms of bank ‘gambling’, new products, and governmental bail-outs. Matt Taibbi’s 2009 depiction of Goldman-Sachs as a giant vampire squid is still popular, often quoted by critics of the increasing control ‘big money’ has. Here’s his very long, humorous update of the same story in Rolling Stone (probably firewalled).
At Fermilab John managed the internet needs of an international clientele that includes scientists, technicians, students, and research scholars, who share an interest in the experiments going on at the facility. He helped them build websites, communicate among themselves, and of course, maintain the highest security standards. In brief, he was a Super Geek or a Geek’s Geek. So I trusted his judgment – not only when he tutored me on how to use the Internet to write and post blogs, but also his take on the IT world in general and its connections to the world at large.
John got interested in technology as a youth. He might have gotten his own PC a few years after 1976, when Apple’s first marketable Personal Computer – Apple 1 – sold for $666.66, “because Wozniak ‘liked repeating digits’ and because of a one-third markup on the $500 wholesale price”. He was involved with computers all his adult life. I think he said ‘from the start’, but that would be a stretch. (By the way, “Stretch” was the name of IBM”s first, unsuccessful effort at PCs). Computers go back to room filling machines of steel, wire and vacuum tubes, like the 1947 ENNIAC in the University of Pennsylvania.
As John was very much an insider of the computer realm, his blunt condemnation of the current internet industry and its impact on society surprised me, and confirmed what I had be feeling. He was ‘ashamed’ to belong to an industry intent on taking advantage of its day to day users in the ordinary public, while keeping them ignorant of the fact, and how it is done. In the IT world, as John put it, “IF YOU’RE NOT A CUSTOMER, YOU’RE A PRODUCT” – the theme for this post. I changed his wording, with his permission, because it implies you could be neither. That’s most unlikely today.
John’s criticism of what’s happening in the field of Internet Service Providers, Data generators, AI, hardware and software developers, and social media owners, fits well with the business mode used widely today – not just at the most sophisticated and successful top-tier firms – namely KEEP CUSTOMERS HAPPY AND IGNORANT. Beyond that, it underscores the deceptive practices of financial enterprises generally, whose goal is to load more and more people with heavier debt burdens (euphemistically called credit), which they control, and from which they get compound interest, about which economist Michael Hudson has much to say. He calls it “debt-deflation”, described in this 15 minute video. It’s one big part of macroeconomics and the evergrowing trend of “Financialization” – a topic I’ve been following for years, admittedly as an amateur.
Not too long ago (in the 50’s and 60’s), many aspects of our ‘advanced culture’ were considered public goods to be provided by public means, agreed to by legislators representing their constituents at various levels of government – local, state or federal. Some examples are: nutritious food, clean air and water, safety, useful employment, health care, schooling, recreational spaces and parks, and infrastructure (e.g., energy, transportation, and communication. All these public goods, and more, are viewed today as opportunities for privatization, and with it more political influence, and upward redistribution of wealth from the many to the few. These are part of what’s the problem with financialization.
The financialization of internet communication is fertile ground for keeping people in the dark, while reaping huge profits. Users who believe they’re getting a ‘free service’ are deluded. (“THERE’S AIN’T NO FREE LUNCH” is as true as ever.) Pitches for ‘free’ services or products in the kingdom of IT are false. Services come with serious costs. More specifically, when you sign up for, or simply use, an internet provided email, social medium, Internet Service Provider, or some helpful app, data about you is being generated and sold to those who can use it for direct marketing, with all but irresistible success.
Before the Internet (which includes ethernet and wireless), telecommunications infrastructures – e.g. , telephone lines, radio transmission, and TV broadcasting – were developed privately, overseen by various levels of government, depending on their commercial and social impact, and generally kept open for all citizens to use. In many cases, the federal government supported research and development with public funds and grants, because they were considered beneficial to the country – i.e., the public good. Nuclear fission at Chicago’s Manhattan Project, and later the Internet in Silicon Valley are examples.
But the government historically had to regulate against monopolies that resulted naturally when the ‘Robber Barrons’ developed shipping and railroads (Vanderbilt), steel and oil (Carnegie), finance (J.P. Morgan), telephone and telegraph (Bell/ ATT/ Western Electric) and others. Famously, Teddy Roosevelt – a Republican – supported progressive politics, and his rough-riders clamped down on those monopolies in 1901. Today that oversight in the public interest is effectively gone.
As technology continues to change the means of communication (both the ‘hard’ metal or fibre optic cables, and the ‘ethereal’ parts of the electromagnetic spectrum used, as seen in this timeline), the complexity of communication increases, and with it, the need for standards and regulation. American communication environments and products are by law under BOTH the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), to regulate and keep these services available. But the two commissions are independent of each other, and often represent different sets of value and interests. Indeed, as with other regulatory agencies, they often end up supporting the industries they’re meant to regulate. This is called ‘regulative capture’.
In the well publicized dispute over “net neutrality“, Ajit Pai – former chair of the FCC and now partner in a private equity firm – convinced Congress to strike down the earlier policy, effectively allowing the biggest Internet Service Providers to offer special advantages, faster service, and favored content to the biggest companies, to the disadvantage of smaller firms.
As usual, the myth is that ‘free markets’ will allow startups to succeed, based on how good a product they offer. The old rules against monopolies, combination in restraint of trade, and unfair business practices of earlier generations have all been made ineffective by the belief that regulation is bad.
The same capture applies to regulatory agencies for automotive and airline industries. In March of 2019, Boeing’s 737MAX was grounded worldwide. Today it’s flying again, despite many claims that pressure to make the company’s most desired plane as fast as possible leads to faulty work and poor production supervision. Inspections continue to reveal more issues, like bad electrical connections- although the control mechanism itself , which malfunctioned in the crashes, is fixed. The plane is not ‘unstable’. Lack of effective oversight seems to be a major factor, exacerbated by federal budget cuts which limit these agencies’ ability to keep up with increased needs. Once again, the biggest money determines government policies, to the harm of the public welfare.
In early April, 2018, the U.S. Senate held several hearing sessions with Mark Zuckerberg, developer and CEO of social medium Facebook, whose user information has been gleaned by data analyzing companies (e.g. Cambridge Analytica and an affiliate) to construct personality profiles, and inappropriately influence political campaigns in UK and Canada. It’s still (falsely) claimed that a similar gleaning of Facebook data was used by Russia to influence Facebook users in the 2016 presidential campaign. “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”, is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels.
Relatedly, two additional reports brought me to realize how far we are from resolving these abuses. 1. In Nov 2017 three men (Bezos, Buffett and Gates) were shown to have combined wealth that tops ALL the poorest of the country’s citizens (160 million), which equals HALF the total population. 2. In Russiagate, Mar 2019, Matt Bivens exploded at popular news media, which have finally reached the tragicomedy condition of no longer even pretending to check facts or care about truth. Earlier on the same day, Matt Taibbi wrote about Russiagate, which Bivens mentions.
I’m currently renting a condo apartment in an upscale neighborhood of Chicago. Sometimes it’s embarrassing to see how much wealth is displayed around me, in close proximity to the down and out. (Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 “Conspicuous consumption” continues.) This man was outside the new bank building across the street from my apartment. Athough it’s a progressive neighborhood generally, ‘making room’ for all genders, races and religious preferences, many people are obviously just hoping for a handout. Poor people walk the streets, and are sometimes hard to distinguish from the well to do, who tend to dress ‘informally’ – especially retirees – until you go to the more expensive restaurants. I don’t know the motives or circumstance of these street people, or whether or not they have found it easier to beg than to earn. But it may be that their lack of education and employable skills is due to their upbringing and experience in poor and violent neigborhoods, because nothing better was available. There’s much research to support that, including this well done WBEZ series, The View From Room 205, published in 2017.
My dear mother (born 1897) had the strictest commitment to truth telling. She could not lie. At best, in a pinch, she would hold her tongue. I inherited that trait. Lying would betray mother. Always helpful, she used to tend graves at our community cemetary in the woods. She had a green thumb, loved gardening, and knew all the botanical names. I can’t lie unless speaking the truth would do grave harm. As a trained MI agent, I might have had to lie, (or even kill myself) if under ‘interrogation’ by the enemy. When I hear someone preface a statement with “I’m not going to lie to you…” I don’t trust them. All this makes me particularly sensitive to the incessant lying and efforts to deceive on the part of advertisers, and those they serve in politics and the press.
This commitment to truth can be troublesome. I’m embarrassed about how many times I’ve been scammed, despite having spent a life teaching language, logic, and critical thinking. Why? Because my default mode is to believe what I hear. I actually believe it’s an important principle, especially when so many people think truth is totally relative. If we expected lies or deception from every stranger we met (or even acquaintances and friends), would civil life be possible? ‘Excuse me, do you know what time it is?’ ‘How do I get to the L-station?’ ‘Are there any coffee shops in this neighborhood?’ ‘Will you be open tomorrow?’ ‘Can you tell me where to catch a cab?’ Don’t even bother asking, because …