I have just watched the two episodes of an investigative series of documentaries on BBC called “Secrets of Silicon Valley“.
It was another co-production between the BBC and The Open University (there have been many) and seemed to have quite a big budget that allowed the investigative reporter, Jamie Bartlett, to visit High Tech companies in Silicon Valley, California, go to a disused building in San Antonio, Texas that had been the headquarters of the “Social Media” campaign of Donald Trump during his campaign for the Presidency of the U.S. in 2016, ride a driverless (or near driverless) giant truck in Florida, and see protests and victims of Uber in India.
The theme of the mini-series was the young and powerful Silicon Valley innovators who were making huge amounts of money by preaching innovation and progress whilst bringing in or allowing sinister developments that may well change all our futures.
In the first episode, the case study of Uber was investigated. Uber has undermined traditional taxi companies in order to allow ordinary citizens to buy a car and join a network that creates a mass of available private “cabs” that can pick people up by the use of just a mobile app.
This seemingly simple and effective idea has created demonstrations by taxi drivers who have lost their employment and from the Uber drivers who were given loans to buy cars (in India) that were based on a rate of return that actually decreased as more and more people came into the market making it impossible for them to earn enough to pay back the loans on their cars. A young widow was interviewed after her Uber Driving husband had committed suicide because he went into huge debt.
Both episodes showed the dark and unacceptable face of capitalism (to coin a well-known phrase). The Tech Titans were also not averse to dodging taxes, as was shown by the huge new Apple Headquarters which has a circumference of about a mile, costs billions but which the company refuses to pay taxes of more than 1% of the estimated value!
There was a constant clash of the almost schizophrenic attitudes of the “Silicon Valley Titans” between utopian idealism and hard-nosed ultra-capitalist greed that Ayn Rand would have delighted in.
The second episode contained a really good investigation into the way that Facebook, which has Mark Zuckerberg as its founder, was founded with great ideals of connecting the world and yet has become a platform for hatred, bullying and political manipulation, that was shown in the highly effective campaign of Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election.
It also showed the way that our privacy has all but disappeared because of the way that big data is being used to influence our shopping, our voting and indeed our lifestyles. I was particularly interested in one company Cambridge Analytica which specialises in so-called “data mining” and “data analysis”.
The above photograph is taken from the front-page of their website and I think the key words are “to change audience behavior”. This company uses data analytics based on the research of Michal Kosinski, who studied at Cambridge University and is now a Professor of Business Studies at Stanford University. Kosinski developed a way of analysing Facebook information in order to work out the political/commercial and social predispositions of people. But, as can be seen quite clearly in the Cambridge Analytica front page, they are not interested in understanding people’s attitudes they want to change them.
In the past few days, we have had the controversial results of the Kenyan Presidential Election. It turns out that Cambridge Analytica was working for the incumbent President, Uhuru Kenyatta.
To quote from a recent BBC report: “Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in Kenyan politics began in 2013 when the company worked for Kenyatta and The National Alliance – the forerunner of the Jubilee Party. During that year’s campaign, the company correlated online data with 47,000 on-the-ground surveys. According to the Cambridge Analytica website, this allowed the company to create a profile of the Kenyan electorate and come up with a campaign strategy “based on the electorate’s needs (jobs) and fears (tribal violence).” Kenyatta won the 2013 election.
Little known but powerful companies such as Cambridge Analytica are having a powerful influence in our lives, according to the programmes. They even managed to get an interview with Alexander Nix. The following will show you the career and background of Mr Nix, I think it explains a lot about the concerns shown by the reporter about today’s movers and shakers.
I have to say that the strange (I felt somewhat mad) ex-Facebook executive that took himself off to the woods in northern Washington state with a high-powered rifle because he was afraid of the huge social unrest that modern technology was unleashing, was both amusing and horrifying.
My biggest concerns about these programmes were that they would be watched by people who are well aware of the dangers outlined. The millions who are being used as data fodder and are open to political and commercial manipulation are happily watching “Big Brother” or the “X Factor”.