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Morozov, E. (2015). Socialize the Data Centres!. New Left Review, 91, pp. 45-68

referring to Frankfurt School sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, best known for his theories on communicative rationality and the public sphere

50

our aim was to promote an independent culture of publishing and conversation—a kind of Habermasian public sphere

—p.50 by Evgeny Morozov
notable
1 year, 10 months ago

our aim was to promote an independent culture of publishing and conversation—a kind of Habermasian public sphere

—p.50 by Evgeny Morozov
notable
1 year, 10 months ago
53

[...] certain aspects of digital technologies are conducive to social mobilization, and others to suppression of mobilization—which of these tendencies predominates largely depends on the political dynamics in a country. I also wanted to make clear that popular discourse about these technologies was completely disconnected from three realities: that they are operated by private companies interested, above all else, in making money; that slogans like ‘Internet freedom’ have not made old-style foreign policy considerations suddenly disappear (American fascination with them has its roots in the Cold War); and that their utopian appeal cannot be squared with most of the things (cyber-attacks, surveillance, spin) the US government itself was doing online.

—p.53 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago

[...] certain aspects of digital technologies are conducive to social mobilization, and others to suppression of mobilization—which of these tendencies predominates largely depends on the political dynamics in a country. I also wanted to make clear that popular discourse about these technologies was completely disconnected from three realities: that they are operated by private companies interested, above all else, in making money; that slogans like ‘Internet freedom’ have not made old-style foreign policy considerations suddenly disappear (American fascination with them has its roots in the Cold War); and that their utopian appeal cannot be squared with most of the things (cyber-attacks, surveillance, spin) the US government itself was doing online.

—p.53 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago
54

This is where we need to be explicit about the normative benchmarks by which we want to assess the situation. If the question is just privacy, then of course open-source is far better. But that doesn’t resolve the issue of whether we want a company like Google that already has access to an enormous reservoir of personal information to continue its expansion and become the default provider of infrastructure—in health, education and everything else—for the twenty-first century. The fact that some of its services are a bit better protected from spying than Apple counterparts doesn’t address that concern. I’m no longer persuaded by the idea that open-source software offers a kind of transnational way of escaping the grip of the American behemoths. Though I would still encourage other countries or governments to start thinking about ways in which they can build their own, less compromised alternatives to them.

Since Snowden, a lot of hackers are especially concerned with government spying. For them, that’s the problem. They’re civil libertarians, and they don’t problematize the market. Many others are concerned with censorship. For them, the freedom to express what they want to say is crucial, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s expressed on corporate platforms. I admire what Snowden did, but he is basically fine with Silicon Valley so long as we eliminate firms that have weak security practices and install far better, tighter supervision at the NSA, with more levels of transparent control and accountability. I find this agenda—and it’s shared by many American liberals—very hard to swallow, as it seems to miss the encroachment of capital into everyday life by means of Silicon Valley, which I think is probably more consequential than the encroachment of the NSA into our civil liberties. [...]

These debates don’t touch on issues of ownership or bigger political questions about the market. [...] The data extracted from us has a giant value that is reflected in the balance sheets of Google, Apple and other companies. Where does this value come from, in a Marxist sense? Who is working for whom when you view an ad? Why should Google or Apple be the default owners? To what extent are we being pushed to monitor, gather and sell this data? How far is this becoming a new frontier in the financialization of everyday life? You can’t address such matters in terms of civil liberties.

cite "the encroachment of capital into everyday life by means of Silicon Valley"

—p.54 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago

This is where we need to be explicit about the normative benchmarks by which we want to assess the situation. If the question is just privacy, then of course open-source is far better. But that doesn’t resolve the issue of whether we want a company like Google that already has access to an enormous reservoir of personal information to continue its expansion and become the default provider of infrastructure—in health, education and everything else—for the twenty-first century. The fact that some of its services are a bit better protected from spying than Apple counterparts doesn’t address that concern. I’m no longer persuaded by the idea that open-source software offers a kind of transnational way of escaping the grip of the American behemoths. Though I would still encourage other countries or governments to start thinking about ways in which they can build their own, less compromised alternatives to them.

Since Snowden, a lot of hackers are especially concerned with government spying. For them, that’s the problem. They’re civil libertarians, and they don’t problematize the market. Many others are concerned with censorship. For them, the freedom to express what they want to say is crucial, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s expressed on corporate platforms. I admire what Snowden did, but he is basically fine with Silicon Valley so long as we eliminate firms that have weak security practices and install far better, tighter supervision at the NSA, with more levels of transparent control and accountability. I find this agenda—and it’s shared by many American liberals—very hard to swallow, as it seems to miss the encroachment of capital into everyday life by means of Silicon Valley, which I think is probably more consequential than the encroachment of the NSA into our civil liberties. [...]

These debates don’t touch on issues of ownership or bigger political questions about the market. [...] The data extracted from us has a giant value that is reflected in the balance sheets of Google, Apple and other companies. Where does this value come from, in a Marxist sense? Who is working for whom when you view an ad? Why should Google or Apple be the default owners? To what extent are we being pushed to monitor, gather and sell this data? How far is this becoming a new frontier in the financialization of everyday life? You can’t address such matters in terms of civil liberties.

cite "the encroachment of capital into everyday life by means of Silicon Valley"

—p.54 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago

the postulate that markets are organised most effectively by private enterprise and that the private pursuit of accumulation will generate the most common good; accomplished by opening international markets and financial networks, and downsizing the welfare state

56

But the case to be made here is not just against Facebook; it’s a case against neoliberalism.

on Facebook being the provider of infrastructure

—p.56 by Evgeny Morozov
notable
1 year, 10 months ago

But the case to be made here is not just against Facebook; it’s a case against neoliberalism.

on Facebook being the provider of infrastructure

—p.56 by Evgeny Morozov
notable
1 year, 10 months ago
56

[...] So if you wanted to provide education to students in Africa, you’d be better off doing it through Facebook, because they wouldn’t have to pay for it. You would then end up with a situation where data about what people learn is collected by a private company and used for advertising for the rest of their lives. A relationship previously mediated only in a limited sense by market forces is suddenly captured by a global American corporation, for the sole reason that Facebook became the provider of infrastructure through which people access everything else. But the case to be made here is not just against Facebook; it’s a case against neoliberalism. A lot of the Silicon Valley-bashing that is currently so popular treats the Valley as if it was its own historical force, completely unconnected from everything else. In Europe, many of those attacking Silicon Valley just represent older kinds of capitalism: publishing firms, banks etc.

on Facebook's mobile operator partners in developing countries.

very into the idea that Silicon Valley isn't just the product of parthogenesis

—p.56 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago

[...] So if you wanted to provide education to students in Africa, you’d be better off doing it through Facebook, because they wouldn’t have to pay for it. You would then end up with a situation where data about what people learn is collected by a private company and used for advertising for the rest of their lives. A relationship previously mediated only in a limited sense by market forces is suddenly captured by a global American corporation, for the sole reason that Facebook became the provider of infrastructure through which people access everything else. But the case to be made here is not just against Facebook; it’s a case against neoliberalism. A lot of the Silicon Valley-bashing that is currently so popular treats the Valley as if it was its own historical force, completely unconnected from everything else. In Europe, many of those attacking Silicon Valley just represent older kinds of capitalism: publishing firms, banks etc.

on Facebook's mobile operator partners in developing countries.

very into the idea that Silicon Valley isn't just the product of parthogenesis

—p.56 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago
59

[...] companies now reject any analogy with utilities, since that might open up the possibility of a publicly run, publicly controlled infrastructure.

oshit

—p.59 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago

[...] companies now reject any analogy with utilities, since that might open up the possibility of a publicly run, publicly controlled infrastructure.

oshit

—p.59 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago
59

‘Big data’ isn’t something unique to the last few years. To understand what’s driving this data collection, you need to forget Internet debates and start focusing on the data banks selling information on the secondary market—companies like Axiom and Epsilon. Who are they selling their data to? To banks, insurance companies, private investigators and so on. There was a debate in the late sixties about the role and potential abuse of data banks in America, which was not all that different from the big data debates today. At stake was whether the US should run national data banks and aggregate all the information collected by federal agencies into one giant database accessible to every single agency and every single university. It was a huge debate, including on a Congressional level. In the end the idea was killed because of privacy concerns. But a lot of scientists and companies made a case that since the data had been collected, it ought to be made accessible to other researchers, because it might help us to cure cancer—exactly the sort of rhetoric you hear now with Big Data. Nowadays the information can be produced far more easily because everything we do is tracked by phone, smart gadget, or computer, and this amplifies its volume. So much is now gathered that you can argue it deserves a new name. But these Internet debates tend to operate with a kind of amnesia, narrating everything in a kind of abstracted history of technology.

[...] Now that ‘the Internet’ is spreading into everything—education, healthcare (with the ‘quantified self’), and all the rest—we’re in danger of ending up with a kind of idiot history, in which everything starts in Silicon Valley, and there are no other forces or causes.

so weird to see this world (i.e., ad/marketing tech) I've been immersed in for the last few years discussed from a Marxist context, which is something I knew pretty much nothing about until recently

—p.59 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago

‘Big data’ isn’t something unique to the last few years. To understand what’s driving this data collection, you need to forget Internet debates and start focusing on the data banks selling information on the secondary market—companies like Axiom and Epsilon. Who are they selling their data to? To banks, insurance companies, private investigators and so on. There was a debate in the late sixties about the role and potential abuse of data banks in America, which was not all that different from the big data debates today. At stake was whether the US should run national data banks and aggregate all the information collected by federal agencies into one giant database accessible to every single agency and every single university. It was a huge debate, including on a Congressional level. In the end the idea was killed because of privacy concerns. But a lot of scientists and companies made a case that since the data had been collected, it ought to be made accessible to other researchers, because it might help us to cure cancer—exactly the sort of rhetoric you hear now with Big Data. Nowadays the information can be produced far more easily because everything we do is tracked by phone, smart gadget, or computer, and this amplifies its volume. So much is now gathered that you can argue it deserves a new name. But these Internet debates tend to operate with a kind of amnesia, narrating everything in a kind of abstracted history of technology.

[...] Now that ‘the Internet’ is spreading into everything—education, healthcare (with the ‘quantified self’), and all the rest—we’re in danger of ending up with a kind of idiot history, in which everything starts in Silicon Valley, and there are no other forces or causes.

so weird to see this world (i.e., ad/marketing tech) I've been immersed in for the last few years discussed from a Marxist context, which is something I knew pretty much nothing about until recently

—p.59 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago
60

[...] Google and Facebook are based on what seem to be natural monopolies. Feeble calls in Europe to weaken or break them up lack any alternative vision, economically, politically, or ecologically.

[...]

The continual demand by local politicians to launch a European Google, and most of the other proposals coming out of Brussels or Berlin, are either misguided or half-baked. [...] Google will remain dominant as long as its challengers do not have the same underlying user data it controls. Better algorithms won’t suffice.

For Europe to remain relevant, it would have to confront the fact that data, and the infrastructure (sensors, mobile phones, and so on) which produce them, are going to be the key to most domains of economic activity. It’s a shame that Google has been allowed to move in and grab all this in exchange for some free services. If Europe were really serious, it would need to establish a different legal regime around data, perhaps ensuring that they cannot be sold at all, and then get smaller enterprises to develop solutions (from search to email) on top of data so protected.

—p.60 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago

[...] Google and Facebook are based on what seem to be natural monopolies. Feeble calls in Europe to weaken or break them up lack any alternative vision, economically, politically, or ecologically.

[...]

The continual demand by local politicians to launch a European Google, and most of the other proposals coming out of Brussels or Berlin, are either misguided or half-baked. [...] Google will remain dominant as long as its challengers do not have the same underlying user data it controls. Better algorithms won’t suffice.

For Europe to remain relevant, it would have to confront the fact that data, and the infrastructure (sensors, mobile phones, and so on) which produce them, are going to be the key to most domains of economic activity. It’s a shame that Google has been allowed to move in and grab all this in exchange for some free services. If Europe were really serious, it would need to establish a different legal regime around data, perhaps ensuring that they cannot be sold at all, and then get smaller enterprises to develop solutions (from search to email) on top of data so protected.

—p.60 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago
62

[...] The reason why Europe has such a hard time formulating an alternative project to Silicon Valley has little to do with any lack of knowledge or skills in Europe. It’s just that the kind of interventions that would have to be made—lessening dependence on American companies, promoting initiatives that do not default to competitiveness and entrepreneurship, finding money to invest in infrastructure that would favour the interests of citizens—go clean against what the neoliberal Europe of today stands for. [...] In other words, to understand Europe’s dealings with ‘the Internet’ we are far better off historicizing Europe rather than ‘the Internet’. [...]

—p.62 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago

[...] The reason why Europe has such a hard time formulating an alternative project to Silicon Valley has little to do with any lack of knowledge or skills in Europe. It’s just that the kind of interventions that would have to be made—lessening dependence on American companies, promoting initiatives that do not default to competitiveness and entrepreneurship, finding money to invest in infrastructure that would favour the interests of citizens—go clean against what the neoliberal Europe of today stands for. [...] In other words, to understand Europe’s dealings with ‘the Internet’ we are far better off historicizing Europe rather than ‘the Internet’. [...]

—p.62 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago
62

Well, I originally regarded myself as in the pragmatic centre of the spectrum, more or less social democratic in outlook. My reorientation came with an expansion of the kind of questions I was prepared to accept as legitimate. So whereas five years ago or so, I would be content to search for better, more effective ways to regulate the likes of Google and Facebook, today it’s not something I spend much time on. Instead, I am questioning who should run and own both the infrastructure and the data running through it, since I no longer believe that we can accept that all these services ought to be delivered by the market and regulated only after the fact. [...] no plausible story can emerge unless Silicon Valley itself is situated within some broader historical narrative—of changes in production and consumption, changes in state forms, changes in the surveillance capabilities and needs of the US military. There’s much to be learnt from Marxist historiography here, especially when most of the existing histories of ‘the Internet’ seem to be stuck in some kind of ideational irrelevance, with little to no attention to questions of capital and empire.

on his political evolution since 2011

—p.62 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago

Well, I originally regarded myself as in the pragmatic centre of the spectrum, more or less social democratic in outlook. My reorientation came with an expansion of the kind of questions I was prepared to accept as legitimate. So whereas five years ago or so, I would be content to search for better, more effective ways to regulate the likes of Google and Facebook, today it’s not something I spend much time on. Instead, I am questioning who should run and own both the infrastructure and the data running through it, since I no longer believe that we can accept that all these services ought to be delivered by the market and regulated only after the fact. [...] no plausible story can emerge unless Silicon Valley itself is situated within some broader historical narrative—of changes in production and consumption, changes in state forms, changes in the surveillance capabilities and needs of the US military. There’s much to be learnt from Marxist historiography here, especially when most of the existing histories of ‘the Internet’ seem to be stuck in some kind of ideational irrelevance, with little to no attention to questions of capital and empire.

on his political evolution since 2011

—p.62 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago
63

Technology companies can enact all sorts of political agendas, and right now the dominant agendas enforce neoliberalism and austerity, using centralized data to identify immigrants to be deported, or poor people likely to default on their debts. Yet I believe there is a huge positive potential in the accumulation of more data, in a good institutional—and by that I mean political—setup. [...] it becomes clear you don’t want two hundred different providers of information services—you want just one, because the scale-effects make things much easier for users. The big question, of course, is whether that player has to be a private capitalist corporation, or some federated, publicly-run set of services that could reach a data-sharing agreement free of monitoring by intelligence agencies.

[...] If you’re trying to figure out how a non-neoliberal regime can function in the twenty-first century and still be constructive towards both environment and technology [...] You will need some kind of basic planning and thinking about an overall informational infrastructure for our communal living, rather than just a clutch of services any company can provide. Social democrats will tell you: it’s okay, we’ll just regulate private firms to do it. But I don’t think that’s plausible. It’s very hard to imagine what regulating Google would mean at this point. For them, regulating Google means making it pay more tax. Fine, let it pay more tax. But this would do nothing to address the more fundamental issues. For the moment we don’t have the power and resources to tackle these. There is no political will to develop the necessary alternative vision in Europe. [...]

on why we should centralise (not break up monopolies), and that regulating/paying more tax wont be enough

—p.63 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago

Technology companies can enact all sorts of political agendas, and right now the dominant agendas enforce neoliberalism and austerity, using centralized data to identify immigrants to be deported, or poor people likely to default on their debts. Yet I believe there is a huge positive potential in the accumulation of more data, in a good institutional—and by that I mean political—setup. [...] it becomes clear you don’t want two hundred different providers of information services—you want just one, because the scale-effects make things much easier for users. The big question, of course, is whether that player has to be a private capitalist corporation, or some federated, publicly-run set of services that could reach a data-sharing agreement free of monitoring by intelligence agencies.

[...] If you’re trying to figure out how a non-neoliberal regime can function in the twenty-first century and still be constructive towards both environment and technology [...] You will need some kind of basic planning and thinking about an overall informational infrastructure for our communal living, rather than just a clutch of services any company can provide. Social democrats will tell you: it’s okay, we’ll just regulate private firms to do it. But I don’t think that’s plausible. It’s very hard to imagine what regulating Google would mean at this point. For them, regulating Google means making it pay more tax. Fine, let it pay more tax. But this would do nothing to address the more fundamental issues. For the moment we don’t have the power and resources to tackle these. There is no political will to develop the necessary alternative vision in Europe. [...]

on why we should centralise (not break up monopolies), and that regulating/paying more tax wont be enough

—p.63 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago
64

At a national level, we need governments that do not deliver the neoliberal gospel. At this point, it would take a very brave one to say, we just don’t think private companies should run these things. We also need governments that would take a bet and say: we believe in the privacy of individuals, so we are not going to subject everything they do to monitoring, and we’ll have a strong legal system to back up all requests for data. But this is where it gets tricky, because you could end up with so much legalism corroding the infrastructure that it becomes counterproductive. The question is how can we build a system that will actually favour citizens, and perhaps even favour some kind of competition in its search engines. It’s primarily from data and not their algorithms that powerful companies currently derive their advantages, and the only way to curb that power is to take the data completely out of the market realm, so that no company can own them. Data would accrue to citizens, and could be shared at various social levels. Companies wanting to use them would have to pay some kind of licensing fee, and only be able to access attributes of the information, not the entirety of it.

Unless we figure out a legal-social regime that will allow this stock of data to grow without it ending up in the corporate silos of Google or Facebook, we won’t get very far. But once we have it, there could be all sorts of social experimentation. With enough data you could start planning beyond the horizon of the individual consumer—at the level of communities, neighbourhoods, cities. That’s the only way to prevent centralization. Unless we change the legal status of data, we’re not going to get very far.

—p.64 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago

At a national level, we need governments that do not deliver the neoliberal gospel. At this point, it would take a very brave one to say, we just don’t think private companies should run these things. We also need governments that would take a bet and say: we believe in the privacy of individuals, so we are not going to subject everything they do to monitoring, and we’ll have a strong legal system to back up all requests for data. But this is where it gets tricky, because you could end up with so much legalism corroding the infrastructure that it becomes counterproductive. The question is how can we build a system that will actually favour citizens, and perhaps even favour some kind of competition in its search engines. It’s primarily from data and not their algorithms that powerful companies currently derive their advantages, and the only way to curb that power is to take the data completely out of the market realm, so that no company can own them. Data would accrue to citizens, and could be shared at various social levels. Companies wanting to use them would have to pay some kind of licensing fee, and only be able to access attributes of the information, not the entirety of it.

Unless we figure out a legal-social regime that will allow this stock of data to grow without it ending up in the corporate silos of Google or Facebook, we won’t get very far. But once we have it, there could be all sorts of social experimentation. With enough data you could start planning beyond the horizon of the individual consumer—at the level of communities, neighbourhoods, cities. That’s the only way to prevent centralization. Unless we change the legal status of data, we’re not going to get very far.

—p.64 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago

abbreviation for the Ministry for State Security, the official state security service for East Germany from 1950-1990

65

I’m not saying that there should be a Stasi-like operation soaking up everyone’s data.

—p.65 by Evgeny Morozov
notable
1 year, 10 months ago

I’m not saying that there should be a Stasi-like operation soaking up everyone’s data.

—p.65 by Evgeny Morozov
notable
1 year, 10 months ago
65

I’m not saying that the system should be run by the state. But you would have at least to pass some sort of legislation to change the status of data, and you would need the state to enforce it. Certainly, the less the state is involved otherwise, the better. I’m not saying that there should be a Stasi-like operation soaking up everyone’s data. The radical left notion of the commons probably has something to contribute here. There are ways you can spell out a structure for this data storage, data ownership, data sharing, that will not just default to a centrally planned and run repository. When it’s owned by citizens, it doesn’t necessarily have to be run by the state.

So I don’t think that those are the two only options. Another idea has been to break up the monopoly of Google and Facebook by giving citizens ownership of their data, but without changing their fundamental legal status. So you treat information about individuals as a commodity that they can sell. That’s Jaron Lanier’s model. But if you turn data into a money-printing machine for citizens, whereby we all become entrepreneurs, that will extend the financialization of everyday life to the most extreme level, driving people to obsess about monetizing their thoughts, emotions, facts, ideas—because they know that, if these can only be articulated, perhaps they will find a buyer on the open market. This would produce a human landscape worse even than the current neoliberal subjectivity. I think there are only three options. We can keep these things as they are, with Google and Facebook centralizing everything and collecting all the data, on the grounds that they have the best algorithms and generate the best predictions, and so on. We can change the status of data to let citizens own and sell them. Or citizens can own their own data but not sell them, to enable a more communal planning of their lives. That’s the option I prefer.

—p.65 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago

I’m not saying that the system should be run by the state. But you would have at least to pass some sort of legislation to change the status of data, and you would need the state to enforce it. Certainly, the less the state is involved otherwise, the better. I’m not saying that there should be a Stasi-like operation soaking up everyone’s data. The radical left notion of the commons probably has something to contribute here. There are ways you can spell out a structure for this data storage, data ownership, data sharing, that will not just default to a centrally planned and run repository. When it’s owned by citizens, it doesn’t necessarily have to be run by the state.

So I don’t think that those are the two only options. Another idea has been to break up the monopoly of Google and Facebook by giving citizens ownership of their data, but without changing their fundamental legal status. So you treat information about individuals as a commodity that they can sell. That’s Jaron Lanier’s model. But if you turn data into a money-printing machine for citizens, whereby we all become entrepreneurs, that will extend the financialization of everyday life to the most extreme level, driving people to obsess about monetizing their thoughts, emotions, facts, ideas—because they know that, if these can only be articulated, perhaps they will find a buyer on the open market. This would produce a human landscape worse even than the current neoliberal subjectivity. I think there are only three options. We can keep these things as they are, with Google and Facebook centralizing everything and collecting all the data, on the grounds that they have the best algorithms and generate the best predictions, and so on. We can change the status of data to let citizens own and sell them. Or citizens can own their own data but not sell them, to enable a more communal planning of their lives. That’s the option I prefer.

—p.65 by Evgeny Morozov 1 year, 10 months ago