TL;DR: we’re using software with shareholders and interacting in private public spaces. We can do better than this.
I live in Morpeth, Northumberland, a lovely market town in the north-east of England. It’s the kind of place that still has a vibrant high street and plenty of stuff going on. Somehow or other it’s survived the hollowing-out of places that seems to have accelerated since the 2008 economic crisis.
Offline private public spaces
Within Morpeth is a small shopping centre called Sanderson Arcade. It’s got shops like Marks & Spencer and Laura Ashley, piped music and a friendly, retro vibe. To help with this they employ men called Beadles, ostensibly to welcome people, give directions and lend an Edwardian air to the place. If you pay attention, however, the Beadles wear earpieces and both look and act a bit like bouncers. It’s then you begin to realise that one of the main reasons that they’re there is to keep out the riff-raff.
I’ve got no particular problem with Sanderson Arcade nor with the Beadles. I would be interested to see what would happen if a group wanted to stage a protest there. I guess they’d invoke the fact that it’s a private space pretty quickly. Still, there’s other places in Morpeth you could go to protest and still be seen and heard. Sanderson Arcade isn’t the only place people go, and the other spaces are owned communally. That’s what our taxes are for.
Online private public spaces
The problem comes when we apply what I’ve just described as a lens through which to understand what we do online. I suppose that, yes, we’re surveilled on CCTV within offline public private spaces. People can track what we purchase. We can answer survey questions about our shopping habits and lifestyle. But that’s where we hit the limits of the analogy. Online private public spaces are very different.
I came across this today. It’s the latest in a long list of examples demonstrating the amount of data Facebook collects on its users. And it’s not as if everyone is unaware that Facebook, at its very core, is a scary privacy-loathing service seeking to track as much about you as possible. Once it has that information it sells it to the highest bidder. I like to think Google’s slightly better in this regard, but if I’m honest that’s only because I use Google’s services more than Facebook’s.
Almost every space in which we interact with other people online is a private public space. For me, Twitter and Google+ are prime examples. In the past we’ve been reassured by Google’s mantra of “don’t be evil” and how people in Iran and Egypt used Twitter to rise up against their oppressors. The reality is that both of these companies are now companies in which you can buy stock. They need to deliver shareholder value.
I’m increasingly leaning away from using software that has shareholders and leaning towards alternatives. I’m writing this on a Chromebook with Ubuntu 14.04 installed, for example. One of the things that’s great about non-profits making software is that they can innovate on behalf of users, rather than in ways that will increase market capitalization.
The problem we’ve got is that to interact with other people you need a means of communicating with them. When everyone’s physically co-located you can use your voice. If the place you’re in is unwelcoming or not to your liking then you can all decamp and move elsewhere. This is not the case when you’ve got a network of thousands of people distributed around the world. It’s quite likely that the only means you’ve got of contacting one another is through a single privately-owned platform.
I’ve toyed with the idea of closing my Twitter and Google+ accounts many times over the past few years. The problem with that is that it would affect me professionally. Not only are they spaces from which I gather a lot of information to do my job, but they’re spaces where other people find out about my work. You can’t do good in the world as a knowledge worker if no-one knows what you’ve been doing.
So what can we do? It’s not a problem for us to solve as individuals, but something for us to do collectively. And the call to action can’t be protect your privacy! because, to be quite honest, people don’t seem to care. Technically-minded people think that building a version of Twitter or Facebook or WhatsApp but with public-key encryption will see users flocking to their site. Well, here’s a newsflash for you: no they won’t. They’ll trade privacy for convenience.
Instead, we need to work at a meta level and do some systems thinking. Here’s a bad idea: try to get everyone to switch from Twitter to IRC. Here’s a good idea: work on creating a compelling way for users to bring their own data and authentication to services. Unhosted seems to be on the right track with that. Just because things have failed previously (OpenID!) doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily fail again.
Of course, the meta meta level problem centres around online business models that aren’t dependent upon advertising. Providing free services and selling user data is the high-fructose corn syrup of the internet. While we in the west might tolerate paying for services, many of those getting online for the first time in developing countries know nothing but Facebook Zero.
Things change. The tech world used to be full of people resisting The Man; the discourse was around connecting people and envisaging new possibilities. Now, however, we have a tech elite with control of the spaces in which we interact. If you don’t understand the potential implications of this, then you might want to dig a little deeper into the NSA revelations and read Dave Eggers’ The Circle. That will open your eyes.
Public spaces should be public and commonly-owned. Perhaps it’s time for governments to stop fawning over billionaires with technical skills and start providing services for all of us. Maybe instead of dismantling the state to allow for private profit, we can use technology to create a more egalitarian and just society. And could we, just for once, use technology in ways other than shoring up the privilege of the one per cent?
Image CC BY Nathan O’Nions