Information Imperialism

21 August 2021

We’ve heard the unfortunate term digital sharecroppers,” which refers to everyone who is posting their life story on a platform that they do not control. We’ve known for a while that in the hands of Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, and LinkedIn the intimate details of our lives are mere marketing data. These platforms don’t call themselves publishers, although they should. They pretend they are only in business to help us communicate with each other.

Here’s the strange thing: We know this, but we continue to publish on these big platforms because, well, they’re big. Their audiences are big. There is always the promise that someone outside our small circle of friends and colleagues will discover us on a global platform. It’s an illusion, of course. The platforms are metering our posts, presenting them to only a few in our feed (unless we promote them with an ad). Still, we play on because it seems worth it. There is always the hope that someone else will discover us, or even that a post will somehow go viral. More friends, more business, more fame — whatever we are seeking will be ours.

If we get off that treadmill for a moment and look around, we will see that the topography has changed. We are on to another level of all this, signaled this week when Facebook announced its virtual office product called Horizon Workrooms. Facebook wants to capture more territory, and the landscape they crave, the geography they are planting their flag in is not physical, but inside us. They want to claim just a little more of our consciousness. It’s information imperialism in action. We’ve long known that the real estate inside our brain is valuable to marketers. Let’s remember, though, that Google and Facebook are full-on AI companies now. They need data to train their AIs. We’ve known for a while that Facebook, Google, Amazon, even Apple, want to collect enough information about us so they can anticipate where we will click before we click. Of course, as companies building more advanced machine learning models — secret models — they will be taking this adventure in data capture beyond mere marketing. But where are they really going with it? That’s the question.

I don’t have the answer now. But I am certain that, like imperialists of the past, our friendly AI-building publishers are rolling open their maps and sectioning off territory that they plan to control. This time they are not opening maps of mountains, rivers, and farmland. This time, they are building a map of the inside of everyone’s mind.

(c) Lee Schneider 2023. Take care of each other. Subscribe.