Episode [] MSP63 [] We Are The Robots

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

Episode [] MSP63 [] We Are The Robots

Surveillance Capitalism is turning us all into robots. Don’t fear the machines: they are us.

Show Links:


·      https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/20/shoshana-zuboff-age-of-surveillance-capitalism-google-facebook

·      https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2594754

·      https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/the-digital-debate/shoshana-zuboff-secrets-of-surveillance-capitalism-14103616.html

·      https://www.wired.com/story/facebook-10-year-meme-challenge/

·      https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/13/dont-believe-the-hype-media-are-selling-us-an-ai-fantasy



Episode Transcript


These shows are dictated to and transcribed by machines, and hurriedly edited by a human. Apologies for the typos and grammar flaws.


On last week’s MSP, Matt Armitage thrilled us with a tale of swashbuckling misadventure and mis-spoken grammar. This week we’re heading further beyond the edge of sanity to ask: whose robot are you? 


Should we assume that this is another one of those shows talking about our entire existence being a computer simulation and that the creator of our Universe is actually a pre-teen working on a school computer project?

·      That’s a very specific example.

·      Have you spent a lot of time thinking about this?


What’s the point of it all is if we’re only ones and zeroes?

·      I’d probably point you in the direction of Rod Rees’s Demi-Monde series of books.

·      Simulations aren’t what we’re talking about today btw, but if it was, then your life still has as much meaning as it did before you realised it was all a simulation.

·      It’s not like pain or joy is any less real. Or the taste of food.

·      It’s unlikely to be a Matrix type situation: 

o   I don’t think anyone is holding our bodies prisoner while our minds are plunged into some fiction. 

·      This is our existence – simulation or not – and it’s really as simple as that.


So, why are we robots?

·      This is building on from something we were talking about in last week’s Geeks Squawk.

·      Radio listeners will know that these shows, MSP and Geeks Squawk, are kind of a pair.

·      but I have had some of our podcast listeners tell me that they know about one show but not the other.

·      Both shows are me and Jeff. 

·      I get to wander off into fantasy realms and thought experiments on MSP whereas on Geeks we’re a bit more grounded in the events of the week, looking at big or quirky stories from the world of tech and culture.


That’s the cross-promotion done. How does this follow from last week’s Geeks.

·      We were talking about the 10 year challenge and how that information can be used to train machine intelligence to identify, track and even age humans more effectively.

·      We also mentioned some other areas where we are inadvertently helping to train AI


So you’re being literal? You’re actually saying that we’re robots?

·      Not in a mechanical sense. But in the sense that we are often used as objects that are the possession of someone or something.

·      Which, of course, begs the question: whose robots are we? 

·      Who thinks they own us?


Another light and fluffy topic for a Fun Friday. 

·      That’s why they call me teddy bear.


No one calls you teddy bear…

·      You can’t start these things unless you try.

·      I’m going to paraphrase the American author, scholar and Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School, Shoshana Zuboff:

·      Once we thought of digital services as free and now those digital service companies think of us as free.


That’s a little chilling.

·      Perhaps. That’s why they call me Teddy Bear.

·      Like Teddy Bear, it’s really just putting a name and an explanation to all the things that are making us uncomfortable about the digital era.

·      We’ll come back to Prof Zuboff later on, and, more spefically, the concept that she’s been working on, which she calls surveillance capitalism.

·      Amid the discomfort pf digitalia, we’ve seen the first stirrings of that anxiety in both the popular protests against establishment politicians and the backlash that many technology companies have faced over the last couple of years.

·      It’s like that sixth sense or that itch you can’t quite scratch.

·      You know something is wrong but you don’t quite know how to shape or vocalise those doubts.


What is that itch?

·      In your case, something that maybe needs urgent medical attention.

·      This is one of the tropes that we come back to so often on this show: the scale of transformation that we’ve undergone in the last 20 years.

·      We’ve seen all kinds of models that have stood for decades, if not hundreds or even thousands of years being turned upside down since the Millennium.

·      We’ve seen information move out of buildings and books where it had to be painstakingly researched and cross-referenced.

·      We communicate instantly. No scheduling of phone calls or slow exchanges of letters.

·      Money zips around the world in seconds. 

·      We don’t have to spend half our free time schlepping around shops in different parts of town.

·      We just buy online.

·      Everything has gotten faster. 

·      And, depending on how you look at it, more convenient.


I think most people would argue those are good changes. 

·      They are. There are so many ways in which our world has improved.

·      And these improvements have been fuelled by this rapid spread of technology.

·      So often, we’re happy to accept whatever shiny new service or app or startup disruption we’re handed.

·      I’ve mentioned before – we’ve reached that point where the technology is too complex for us to grasp.

·      When I was a kid, you could open up the hood of your car and everything was there.

·      Very often today, there will be some kind of protective cover over most of the engine, which is mainly there to stop you tinkering with it or trying to understand how it works.


We’re actively discouraged from understanding how things work?

·      In the world we know, money is the currency. 

·      We might not have a lot of it, but we can see it, we can touch it, and we want to find out where we can get more.

·      In the new digital economy, information is the currency. Data is information.

·      Money is derived from that information.

·      So no, it isn’t in the best interests of any information gathering company to have us look too closely at how that data is generated and used.


So that lack of clarity and definition is a deliberate act?

·      It may not be deliberate.

·      As soon as you say things like deliberate, you start to cook up conspiracy type theories. 

·      That kind of theory isn’t helpful. It becomes insular and self-fulfilling.

·      What we have is a group of independent actors.

·      And they share a common goal. So I’d say it’s more of a tacit understanding than an agreement.


Is this where that idea of surveillance capitalism comes in?

·      Thank you. I was wondering how’d I’d box my way out of the corner and weave back to that. 

·      I’ll get to the surveillance capitalism part in a minute – I’m still working through the concept myself, especially as I can’t buy Prof Zuboff’s book until the end of the month.

·      It’s called The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It came out in the US last week but my Kindle account is set to UK and it’s only out there at the end of Jan, so it’s just beyond my grasp for now.

·      One thing I definitely agree with her on is the need to identify and name what’s happening.


I thought last week we determined that you don’t care about the origin of terminology?

·      Yes. And we also found out that you think adamantine is the magic metal of the Marvel comics.

·      Earlier I mentioned that we find it hard to keep up with the pace of change. 

·      It feels like we’re all lagging behind the technology.

·      And part of that is down to the fact that we don’t know exactly what it is that we’re lagging behind.

·      And that allows other people – or companies – to turn wild bets and assumptions into norms.

·      And eventually, those norms become laws or de facto behaviours that we all accept or follow.


Like the military term: truth on the ground?

·      Exactly like that. 

·      The last 20 years, in terms of the behaviour of the new class of disruptive tech companies, especially those with a focus on data, has been an epic land grab.

·      In many ways – and I think this is an analogy Prof Zuboff makes, I can’t quite remember – it’s a bit like the behaviour of the European colonialists.

·      That idea of rushing out into the unknown and simply taking something and declaring it as your own.


Isn’t that just business?

·      Sorry I’m a little vague with this stuff: I haven’t read the book, I’m getting this info from interviews with Prof Zuboff and from her columns in the German news site Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – which are in English in case you’re interested in reading them.

·      There’s a particularly good interview on the Guardian’s website, from last weekend, it’s with Prof Zuboff and another one of my favourite writers and technology voices John Naughton. 

·      Is it just business? The Internet at the turn of the century was kind of unknown territory.

·      We were, or were about to go through the first dot com crash.

·      The realisation that it wasn’t a field of dreams, you had to do more than build it, and that Internet companies actually needed a business model.


And that model was free or freemium?

·      Yeah. As you know, the supposedly free model of the Internet is one of my pet peeves.

·      As we talked about a lot towards the end of last year, people have suddenly woken up to the value of their data.

·      And by that, I mean themselves.

·      I think that’s one thing that I haven’t hyped enough, and it’s something that Zuboff does brilliantly.

·      We see our lives and we see the data we generate.

·      The companies we donate that data to don’t necessarily make that distinction.

·      Our lives are their data streams. And that’s where the surveillance part comes in: our lives are a commodity to be searched and stored. 

·      But more on that after the break, I guess. 




Let’s go back to that idea of free and freemium we landed on just before the break. 

·      When the dotcom crash hit, tech firms had to figure out how to monetise.

·      One of the models they landed on was ad funded.

·      It could equally have been subscription based, but the model that really chimed with people was the getting stuff free one.

·      We shouldn’t overlook how expensive going online was in the early days.

·      The idea of spending all day looking at the Internet on your phone was laughable.

·      Partly because of the speed. But mostly because it was cripplingly expensive. You were being charged by the byte.


And the last thing people wanted when they eventually landed online was to face another round of charges.

·      Yes. So free services seemed to be the answer to everyone’s needs.

·      But to make money online you need information. Data about the people you are advertising to.

·      So suddenly we’re being sold on the idea of the democratisation of information.


There’s still a pointed discussion to be had there though. Creating that free flow of information has transformed the way we learn, the knowledge we have access to.

·      Yes. Look at Wikipedia. For all its faults, it’s an incredible undertaking. 

·      Being able to look through newspapers and government databases.

·      But that’s a small part of the data story.

·      And it’s entirely separate from the discussion about how Facebook and Google and hundreds of other companies ended up owning our data.

·      By portraying that idea of a democracy of data, those companies were also able to assert ownership of the information we generated for them.

·      There was no law that said that should be the case.

·      It’s like a gambler at the roulette wheel. 

·      You choose a number and throw.

·      When we knock them back, they retreat. 

·      But they continue to push at the limits of what we will let them get away with.


Which is where that idea of naming comes in?

·      Yes. Because until we define the system, we can’t identify our place or role in it. 

·      It’s like that analogy I made last year about the social media model and farming.

·      The farmer has cows, he milks the cows and sells the milk to supermarkets and their customers.

·      In that model we think that we’re the customers. We aren’t, we’re the cows being milked.

·      We’re looked after just well enough for the farmer to profit from us. 


How does this fit in with this idea of surveillance capitalism?

·      First of all let’s look at the surveillance part.

·      We traditionally look at surveillance as something that a government or some official body does.

·      But terms like Opposition Research reaching the public consciousness have thrown into harsh light the fact that companies also – I won’t use the word spy – keep tabs on people and other institutions.

·      But we still think of surveillance in classic spying terms.

·      We don’t tend to envisage it as a trail of data.


As a surveillance tool?

·      Companies don’t need to be watching and listening to you to know everything you’re doing.

·      What you bought for lunch. That new funny product in the pharmacy.

·      What you’re wearing today. Where you drove to and from. How long you worked out for. What route you took on your jog. 

·      Even down to the phrasing of posts and comments that help to signal what frame of mind you’re in. 

·      All neatly geo-stamped and time coded.


Most people don’t seem to care…

·      Which is why those definitions are so important. And why the scions of the digital economy have so little interest in those distinctions being made or that clarity being brought.

·      Look at it in a different way. Let’s say my company Kulturpop gives you a free notebook at an event. Or even puts it through your door.

·      You use it to keep a private journal of your actions, your thoughts and feelings.

·      Then I pop along and ask to borrow your journals, read them and record them.


I can’t imagine most people wanting you to know their most intimate secrets.

·      Why? What would I use it for? I’m no bad actor. You can trust me.

·      Take it a stage further. What if I simply grab your journal and tell you it’s mine and everything in it is mine.

·      The book was always mine and I only lent it to you to write in.

·      That’s a world that we’ve somehow, if not agreed to, then not actively protested against.

·      And in this version of the world, lack of protest is interpreted as acquiescence.


We started off the show asking the question, whose robot are you? Where does the robot come in?

·      Go back to the farm analogy. In a surveillance economy, we’re a product.

·      Look at the ten year challenge.

·      And if you haven’t read it yet, please do read Kate O’Neill’s insightful piece on the challenge at Wired.com.

·      For most of us, the challenge is just a fun little exercise. You post a picture of yourself today and one from 10 years ago.

·      Harmless, right?

·      But that information – and let’s not forget that every piece of data we give away is information – can be used to train a facial recognition AI.


If they have access to our photos and our profiles, can’t those machines already draw those parallels?

·      They can. But your online pages are full of noise.

·      Think of the number of pictures many of us post. Multiples a day.

·      How many of those are selfies or other shots with you in?

·      Most people are not as fastidious as I am about keeping their visage offline.

·      What the challenge does is shortcut the work to train the AI.

·      You choose two images that you think are good representations of how you looked, then and now.

·      That’s an incredible shortcut through the noise of thousands of potential images of you and, perhaps, relatives who have more than a passing resemblance to you.


In other words, we could look at it as if we had just been sent a piece of code and completed a programming request?

·      And you can see that pattern being repeated throughout the hundreds of interactions we have with technology every day.

·      We’re being told that the technology is there to make our lives easier.

·      And there is some truth to that, at least in a superficial sense.

·      But we are the information, and the companies are using us to train and shape the products of tomorrow for them.

·      It’s like having the world’s most comprehensive and almost entirely free R&D centre.


It still brings us back to that same question: why does it matter?

·      Because you have to get your head around the fact that in this new digital world, you are viewed as bytes, a data set, not as a living, breathing, thinking organism. 

·      So what sounds like a simple question requires a really long and complicated answer…


Everything with you is long and complicated…

·      This is where I flash my Douglas Adams card again.

·      In a sense the answer is simple and seemingly nonsensical: we are information.

·      It’s like 42. When you see the answer, you begin to see how vast and layered the question really was.

·      That’s partly the reason – I think – that writers like Naughton and Zuboff and O’Neill are shining a light on this area.

·      I’ll flash back to those politicians asking Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai questions last year.

·      The questions were mostly irrelevant because the politicians had no frame of reference with which to pose them.

·      You were looking at people living in alternate realities.

·      They’re using the same words but using them to speak different languages.


Does it comes back to that idea of the kind of society we want to live in?

·      Yes. You can’t make those decisions without defining what that society is.

·      So this week there was a story that Microsoft would be making USD500m available to provide affordable housing in Seattle.

·      One of the curses of the technology industry is that the liveable cities they set up in and around become unliveable and unaffordable as a result of the distortions their presence creates.

·      It’s a nice story, right? Microsoft giving back to the city it calls home?


[Jeff Replies]

·      But as some pundits pointed out, it’s not a gift.

·      It’s an investment. That money will essentially be in the forms of loans and building property that will turn the investment company a profit.

·      One article also pointed out that the investment vehicle being used actively blocked attempts by the city council to enact a small tax on local companies.

·      A tax that would probably have raised the city more than that 500m in revenue.


But it’s still a choice people should make for themselves?

·      So yes. If you want to live in a society where companies are responsible for providing public services, by all means, select that option. 

·      By defining the system, you can do that.

·      You are deciding to place your trust and faith in a private company that is responsible to its board and shareholders and not to you.

·      You are preferring to place that trust in them over elected officials whose job is to represent you.

·      I don’t agree with that choice. But at least arm yourself with the knowledge to make it.

·      But don’t lose sight of the fact that the system is a machine, and at best, you’re just a robot, an automaton carrying out a sub-routine.