Monday, June 25, 2012


There are at least three countries – Romania, Israel, the UK – that have either passed or are in the process of passing measures that are commonly referred to as ‘Big Brother law’. How do you even begin to write commentary on media and technology in a world that is so comfortable with its dystopias? In which that phrase, Big Brother law, isn’t used emotively, to stir passions and incite revolt, but rather matter-of-factly, as a dispassionate descriptor of what is now possible to do to people, and therefore should. Some of us may be against it, but this opposition is made harder to articulate by the very ease with which those description are thrown around. There used to be a show called Big Brother. It was popular. Perhaps that’s where the phrase comes from.

More and more I get the sense that the true test of public opinion – and of the capacity of existing laws and constitutional arrangements to moderate the most opprobrious attacks on our personal and collective freedoms – lies not in the passing of such laws, not even the grotesquely Orwellian Patriot Act, but rather in the efforts of private companies like Facebook to win concessions from their customers, in exchange not for security – or a perception of security – but rather convenience and features. That is the real moving frontier. That is where people are at their most attentive and where fundamental attitudes and behaviours are shaped, via a slow conditioning and a constant, exhausting negotiation. I give you a new, powerful feature. I take away some of your capacity to hide things from the network. I conceal, or try to conceal, the true nature of the exchange or even that an exchange has taken place. Your move.

Facebook Places

Facebook is not the only company involved in this, but its efforts have been the most concerted and issue-defining. The pronouncement of its founder's that ‘having two identities for yourself’ (by which he means, seeking to discriminate in how you present yourself in different contexts) ‘is an example of a lack of integrity’, has achieved the status of the classic ‘those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear’. Now, following the company’s troublesome IPO, the questions around Facebook – which might just boil down to a single one: can Big Brother earn a living? – have taken on an extra degree of urgency. Arguably the coming Facebook bubble, were it to eventuate, would have as many cultural and political implications as economical ones.

The most alarming report – if you happen to own stock in the company – came from Michael Wolff in the MIT’s Technological Review, according to whom Facebook’s business model, no matter how many privacy concessions its users might be prepared to make, is doomed to fail (has failed already) and to take the ad-supported web with it. After a refreshingly unsentimental look at the parlous state and diminishing returns of online advertising generally, Wolff writes:

Facebook has convinced large numbers of otherwise intelligent people that the magic of the medium will reinvent advertising in a heretofore unimaginably profitable way, or that the company will create something new that isn't advertising, which will produce even more wonderful profits. But because its stock has been trading at about 40 times its expected earnings for the next year, these innovations will have to be something like alchemy to make the company worth its sticker price.

Relief to Facebook and its share price has come over the last two weeks following its hurried introduction of mobile ads and a series of reports indicating that said ads command far greater attention amongst users than regular web ads on regular computers. Like ten times as much attention: a difference of a whole order of magnitude. This could be due to novelty, opine some, and yes, the companies that produced these reports also collaborate with Facebook in the delivery of mobile ads, but the company needed news like this and had in fact been courting news like this, suggesting – albeit in a somewhat veiled manner – that it might be, yet again, on the verge of something big, something that might renew the promise of future earnings on which the fortunes of listed companies are continually built and rebuilt. ‘Phones can be location-specific so you can start to imagine what the product evolution [of a location-based ad service] might look like over time, particularly for retailers,’ said Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s vice president of global marketing solutions, in a telephone interview to Bloomberg. And Bloomberg immediately jumped to the conclusion that Facebook had such a product in their pipeline. But no, Everson was just merely stating that you cold imagine the product evolution. Well of course you could. And even if you couldn’t, who hasn’t seen Minority Report?

‘Hello Mr Yakamoto, welcome back to the GAP’.
Advertising as a form of surveillance.
Remember the targeted advertising projecting itself around the character played by Tom Cruise, having sensed his presence? The holographic bot at the GAP welcoming back the store’s customers? And remember also how, when Tom becomes a fugitive, those same location-based services turn into beacons of his whereabouts, threatening to hasten his arrest? But that the future of advertising was a dystopia had been already established by then. A cool dystopia, perhaps, but a dystopia nonetheless. So that is the challenge for Facebook. That’s why they won’t come out and announce that they have all sorts of location-based advertising products at so much as the development stage, and even as they proceed to casually acquire companies like hyper-local mobile advertising targeting startup Rel8tion. For the mobile user, right now, it is imperative that adding one’s present location still feel like a feature, an informative addendum, as opposed to a piece of data to be acquired, digested and spat back in the form of hyper-local advertising. This is a game on which the future of Facebook and quite possibly of the ad-supported web rests. Big Brother must tread carefully.

I have explored the dystopian tangle of location-based services for a piece in the current monthly issue of The New Inquiry magazine, which is still available for the rest of this week for a nominal subscription fee. What I didn’t go into there is an interesting tension that has arisen in the wake of the hyper-local. The web used to present itself as, and aspire to the status of, a global non-place, akin to the space that the cyberpunk novels of Gibson and Stephenson had invented and furnished in the nineteen-eighties and early nineties. Then something changed halfway through web 2.0 with the introduction of Google Earth, smartphones and GPS: suddenly regular earthly geography found expression into the network and started creeping into the experience of reading and writing the web, which had previously been radically deterritorialised in ways both subtle and overt. Take this blog: written in New Zealand, hosted by an American company on servers located God knows where, routed and pieced together onto the screens of people who might not know or care to discover where the pages originate, if it even make sense to say that they are of any place. But now Blogger allows to geotag one’s posts, and even changes the address of its hosted blogs according to the country where the reader’s computer resides. This last innovation just confuses the issue of location, as a matter of fact, but is the sign of a renewed concern – as is the cursed geolocking of content – for trying to remap the web onto the world that ostensibly produces it.

As for content, so for advertising: hence the reimagining of the social graph not only as the means of delivering the right piece of advertising to the right person, but also in the right place, where place no longer means cyberspace or the internet – which in the classical sense was also if not primarily one giant mall (think Stephenson’s Metaverse) – but also a place in this world, preferably near a shop of bricks and mortar where you can be tracked along with your imminent purchase.

We could hardly expect our physical world as mapped and accessed by the internet to be anything but a digital hyper-real. And so to be hyper-local means to be too precisely located, with 16 digit-long coordinates of longitude and latitude that mean nothing to you, but everything, too much, to your computer or to your smartphone, and to the likes of Facebook. You used to be able to claim to be somewhere, but no more: the passive sharing of that piece of data – which is still an option, these days, for now – relieves you of having to constantly update that claim, and becomes a vital statistic; something else to define you by, another social sign. And soon no doubt we’ll learn to integrate that piece of information into the construction and maintenance of our digital self, this other identity that lives on the screen and leaves a myriad daily traces of itself in more databases than you could ever count or know.


Unknown said...

I remember when mobile phones, as they were called, appeared and the interesting thing I noticed was that often, when seeing them being used, the user loudly describing to the phone where they physically were, e.g., "I'm here in Newmarket, corner of Teed St, talking to you on my mobile phone."

Giovanni Tiso said...


Con said...

Andrew said...

An important counterpart to this excellent post, over on Crooked Timber:

Seeing Like A Geek

Giovanni Tiso said...

Belatedly, thank you Andrew: that's a great read.

Ben Wilson said...

My GPS is almost always turned off, to save batteries. I only turn it on when I actually want to use it for something.

Gio, have you ever seen Waze? I thought you might find it interesting - it's a Navigation system that can constantly update where you are on the network back to the whole system. The actual purpose of it, for most of the people who seem to be on it, is anti-surveillance. It's used to log where you see police checkpoints and speed traps. It also can be used to log traffic information, which is the official purpose. But the funny irony of it is that as an anti surveillance system it is hyper surveilling. I have often used it with friends when we're picking each other up in the car. We can literally see where the other person is on the map. And all the other Wazers in the area.

I played with it for a little while, watching the more dedicated Wazers logging dutifully where they saw speed traps...then forgetting to turn it off, I watched them drive all the way back home to their houses. Constantly fed back was information about how fast they were traveling, so I could see when they were speeding. If I was of the mind, I could have followed them around discreetly.

A friend of mine who is a traffic cop said they were well aware of it as a system. That put me right off, right there.

You can set up groups in it, and it pushes that it's also for social networking, you can chat on the groups. There doesn't seem to be that much of that in NZ, but the chatter in Ozzie was possibly enough for people to get addicted.

Just thought you might be interested. It's one of those super futuristic ideas that you use for about 1 day until the shortcomings occur to you. It's really cool, at first. Then it actually creeps you out - unless you have nothing to hide.....

It's also free.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Blimey. It's enough to make me sorry that I don't drive. Or leave the house very much at all.

Ben Wilson said...

I'll show you it when I'm down in Welly. The other highly futuristic mappy solution is Sygic, which you have to pay for, and seems to be a step above Google Maps in that instead of relying on crowdsourcing to enter locations, they have actually scraped the telephone book. You can search on, say, Korean food, and you get a list in order of how far it is from you of every match. Practically *everything* came up when I did it last, unlike Google, which gets about one tenth as much. Scarily, you can also search for people on it, which was what made me think they scraped the phone book. Then you get an estimation of how far it is to their house, and directions which guide you in.