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Gringo view: you are being watched

(Opinion) You may be totally unaware of it, but your every move and desire is being stolen from you, sliced, and diced and used to sell you or someone like you something you didn’t even know you wanted.

Perhaps one of the most prophetic insights of the past half century was this simple discovery by advertising genius, Lester Wunderman: “Data is an Expense. Knowledge is a Bargain.” At Wunderman’s side, I should have seen where that could be leading us, not that

I could have stopped it. At least I could have tried.

And now it is too late.

Dr. Shoshana Zuboff, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School brilliantly calls it “the age of surveillance capitalism.”

She has pulled aside the curtain and uncovered the world of data-driven marketing, a world in which I was a major player and the source of my comfortable lifestyle.

You are being watched. (Photo Internet reproduction)
You are being watched. (Photo Internet reproduction)

It’s a world I have come to realize should never have been allowed to grow, expand, and prosper as it has.

Put simply, it was the product of raw commercial greed, freed from legal constraints.

Dr. Zuboff points her finger at an economic system built on the secret extraction and manipulation of human data by five of the six most valuable economic enterprises in the world economy, companies that have become household names.

“Facebook was the first follower, but not the last. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple are private surveillance empires, each with distinct business models.”

Google and Facebook are data companies and surveillance-capitalist pure plays. The others have varied lines of business that may include data, services, software, and physical products.

In 2021 these five U.S. tech giants represent five of the six largest publicly traded companies by market capitalization in the world.

Just think about that: five of the six largest publicly traded companies in the world exist to a great extent, from using or selling data they have stolen from you.

They may have other lines of business but at the core of their profitability is that data. That knowledge is a very, very, valuable bargain and the cookies you agree to just enhance it.

This has come a long way since the end of the 1950s when we would take name and address data from telephone books to address product purchase proposals (colloquially, ‘junk mail’).

The math was simple: The more of the ‘right’ data, the better the response. The better the response, the lower the cost of each purchase.

The lower the marketing cost applied to each purchase, the higher the profit.

It was not a very sophisticated business model. Not at the end of the fifties and into the early sixties.

But by the late nineteen hundred, something new and wonderful was changing the entire landscape. The existence of the mainframe computer gave companies a tool which could hold and sort data quickly and inexpensively in innumerable ways.

And as more and more sophistication developed, more of your data could, without your knowledge or permission, become usable for targeted marketing.

That hundreds of millions of personal computers were by then situated in private hands just waiting for something more exciting than Atari ‘Pong’ (1972) or ‘Space Invaders (1978) to provide entertainment, was an opportunity waiting to happen.

It happened when in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web, and the internet began connecting all those computers seamlessly.

The advent of the 2000s saw the internet becoming increasingly integrated into every aspect of everyday life.

The proliferation of broadband internet, the growth of social media platforms, the advent of cloud computing, and the growth of mobile technologies all changed the commercial landscape significantly and forever.

Considering purchasing a new refrigerator? Today, it is just natural to search the web for the right machine, and the best deals.

Just remember that each click is recorded as data and transformed into Google’s knowledge of your interest in purchasing, the types you looked at and how much time you spent looking at each, the price level that kept your interest, the sites visited and everything, everything.

What a gold mine of knowledge about you for hard goods merchants to target you with their offers.

And that is just one tiny example of how Google compiles your data and knowledge of everything and rents it to sellers.

The result is the surveillance capitalism we have today.

Google wasn’t always profitable. In 2001, Google finally achieved profitability only when it realized that the data it was secretly gathering – a sophisticated surveillance medium for seizing human data – was worth far more as an advertising product than charging for search. They kept that a secret.

“Prediction was the first imperative that determined the second imperative: extraction. Lucrative predictions required flows of human data at unimaginable scale.

Users did not suspect that their data was secretly hunted and captured from every corner of the internet and, later, from apps, smartphones, devices, cameras, and sensors. User ignorance was understood as crucial to success.

Each new product was a means to more “engagement,” a euphemism used to conceal illicit extraction operations” wrote Dr. Zuboff.

Summarized succinctly by Douglas Edwards, Google’s first brand manager: “Everything you’ve ever heard or seen or experienced will become searchable. Your whole life will be searchable.”

And as we continue to live in the modern world, there is almost nothing we can do about it.

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