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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Feb-18 > Web of spies

Web of spies

Five corporate giants have captured the open space of the internet. Two, Google and Facebook, have created an entirely new surveillance capitalism. But we’re too hooked to care

How the web controls you

The “dust of exploded beliefs,” the English aphorist Geoffrey Madan once wrote, “may make a fine sunset.” We’re beginning to see that glow over the internet which, if you count back to the design phase in the autumn of 1973, is now over four decades old. From the moment the internet first opened for semi-public use in January 1983, it evoked utopian dreams. It was easy to see why. Cyberspace—the term coined by the novelist William Gibson for the virtual space behind the screen—really did seem to be a parallel universe to “meatspace,” the term invented by Grateful-Dead-lyricist-turned-essayist John Perry Barlow for the messy physical world that we all inhabit. Cyberspace in the 1980s was a glorious sandpit for geeks: a world with no corporations, no crime, no spam, no hate speech, relatively civil discourse, no editorial gatekeepers, no regulation and no role for those meatspace masters whom Barlow called the “weary giants of flesh and steel.”

But then, gradually, the internet was commercialised and those two parallel spaces merged to create our networked world, in which the affordances of cyberspace combine with surveillance and corporate control. Of course, the internet has brought huge benefits in terms of access to information and efficiency of communication: try imagining our home or work lives without it. But there are serious worries. The online world is populated by several billion mostly passive addicts of devices, apps and services created by a handful of corporate giants. Prying governments and giant companies have acquired the capacity to surveil our every move, both on the internet and, now that so many devices have built-in GPS, in the real world too. Through their ability to monitor our searches these companies—as well as the governments they co-operate with—are able to see our innermost thoughts and desires. (Yes, even our desires: what people search for on Google is incredibly revealing.)

It all creates the potential for unprecedented manipulation, and—rather suddenly—worries are piling up about how that network technology is disrupting our society, warping our children’s development, our politics and our lives. Even the digital evangelists are having second thoughts. In November 2017, Sean Parker, the first President of Facebook, accused the social network of exploiting “vulnerability,” with “God only knows” what effects on “our children’s brains.” In the same month, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook Vice-President, said social media firms had created “tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”

How did it come to this?

The answer, as Hemingway said of going bankrupt, is first slowly and then very quickly. The tipping point came in 2007 with the launch of the iPhone, a product whose brilliant marketing and slick design would make the smartphone mainstream. Most people now go online using such a device. This is significant because, unlike PCs and laptops, most smartphones are closed devices, tightly controlled by manufacturers and network operators. The switch to mobile brought a sudden increase in corporate power.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s February 2018 issue: John Naughton, James Ball, Yuan Ren, Hannah Jane Parkinson and Houman Barekat outline the ways in which our lives are controlled by big tech giants. Naughton argues that Facebook and Google have created a new “surveillance capitalism” in which they battle to grow user engagement of their products and monetise our lives for their own gain as they do so. The cover package also explores how “bots,” fake social media accounts, influenced the US presidential vote and the Brexit referendum as well as the effects of removing net neutrality in the US. Elsewhere in the issue: Samira Shackle asks what happens to ordinary civilians affected by Islamic State as they attempt to move back to their homes and rebuild their lives; Shahidha Bari asks whether we can continue to appreciate the work of actors, filmmakers and writers who have been disgraced; and Christine Ockrent profiles Michel Barnier.
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