Surveillance Capitalism and Digital Ads Have Broken the Internet, but a Healthier Digital World Is Within Our Reach
As I was reading Meditations, a book Marcus Aurelias wrote in self-reflection, I came across a sentence that I keep coming back to, he writes: “You should take no action unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically, or with conflicting motives,” all four of which are accurate terms for describing how the internet functions under the advertisement business model and surveillance capitalism.
First, we had banner ads, then pop-up and pop-under, then pay-per-click, and finally, we entered the current era and inarguably the most dangerous one, social media advertising.
The main problem with modern day advertisement is that it relies on user surveillance. By offering us “free” services, and importing our data from other ecosystems, platforms such as Google, Facebook, and increasingly Amazon collect whatever they can on our interests and behavior. They then use this information to show us Ads that we’re most likely to click on. The better they are at predicting our future actions, the more effective their Ads, and thus the revenue they generate. The more precise a marketer wants to get with their target audience, the more they must pay for that Ad campaign, which even further incentivizes user surveillance.
There is a battlefield among the tech giants for creating the most accurate prediction of our future actions; in the process, they not only predict it but influence it too. By showing us Ads of products, services, and information that we otherwise would have not witnessed, our lifestyle and ideology are affected by what their algorithms perceive our susceptibilities are. And ultimately, these algorithms aren’t designed to produce the best outcome for users, because users aren’t the customers.
The digital realm is not distinct from the rest of human life and human rationality — it affects our well-being and the circumstances under which we live. From the age of the ancient Romans who decided to explore direct democracy to modern-day democracies with separation of power, inspired by the enlightenment era, it has been a human value for citizens to control the sociopolitical environment under which they live. However, this democracy isn’t extended to the digital realm, because we think digital life is not real life, but the truth is that terms such as Cyberspace are Newspeak, they confuse the reality, there is no such thing as cybersphere; what is real is life here. Our digital rights are our human rights, and when our internet is oppressive, so is our society — thus, we came to the current model uncritically.
Additionally, the model demands our attention, because the longer we stay on the platform, the more revenue advertisers generate, so they’re designed to be addictive. If nothing else, we should be bothered by the fact that big tech hires some of the most talented people in our societies to use their intellectual capacity, education, and creativity to maintain user attention just a few more seconds than their rivals — thus the current model is selfish.
The Ad model is lousy, because we’re under surveillance on ecosystems that we have come to rely on — twitter is the closest ecosystem we have to a global public square. It’s also a lousy model because ultimately the decisions that are being made on the principles of these ecosystems aren’t based on the interests of the users, but instead, in the interests of the advertisers — thus there is a conflict of interest.
The current model came to exist as a result of the dotcom crash. Suddenly, technology companies found their stocks plummeting, investors were afraid of investing more capital, and with little to no form of revenue generation from other methods, tech companies started heavily investing on advertisement — thus we entered it unwillingly.
Now that we’ve had almost two decades of experience with the Ad model, and witnessed its rise and fall, it’s time to consider alternative models. Models that prioritize the interests of their users, have a democratic decision-making process, and are responsive to the needs of society and citizenry.
Many argue that Blockchain technology and a native internet currency (e.g., Bitcoin) will free us from problems such as centralization of power by removing intermediaries and empowering collectively-owned and operated ecosystems. Though this might be true, we must be cautious not to look at technological innovations as having a moral stance independent of human use. Ultimately, the blockchain ecosystem is a tool that can be used for the betterment of the human condition or not.
The Brave browser is an example of a project that might be able to offer a decent solution to monetization of content. It allows anyone using the browser to set aside a certain amount of money every month (say $5) in Basic Attention Token (BAT) — which is an ERC-20 Token, built on the Ethereum blockchain. Once a month, the browser distributes the BAT to the websites the user visited the most. This allows sites to get paid for their content through microtransactions, enabled by CryptoAssets. While the idea of microtransactions isn’t new, it’d have been challenging to accomplish with fiat currencies, such as the US Dollar, because they’re expensive to move around, especially across international borders; however, now with numerous digital-native currencies it’s easier than even before to achieve this.
There are other initiatives outside of the blockchain space that are working on solving these challenges too. Medium, for example, doesn’t run Ads, so they can serve the interests of their readers and writers without worrying about how it will impact advertisers. It can accomplish this by charging its members $5 a month, a part of those fees is then distributed to the authors of the essays they read.
We have been led to believe that democracy in the digital realm isn’t as important as “the real world,” we’ve been led to think that digital life is not real life, and worst of all, we’ve been led to believe we can have everything for free. Now that the internet has a native currency, we’ve witnessed the consequences of the advertisement business model, and blockchain is making it possible to have decentralized application — without intermediates — it’s no longer acceptable to maintain a blind eye towards the atrocities inflicted on society and citizenry by autocratic digital institutions.
What Medium is doing is a feasible model for the likes of Twitter to experiment with, and content creators can sign up to get paid for their work when a user visits them using the Brave browser. Though these won’t solve all our problems, it’s a great effort towards making marginal progress in the right direction.