Precursor To Dystopia #1: "We're Building A Dystopia Just To Make People Click On Ads"

Welcome to the first Precursor To Dystopia column.

What started as a little feature on the Instagram moodboard for my novel Marlowe Kana has become a full-blown column. And to start it, here’s a shameless lead image of Chrissy Tiegen’s boobs (It’s relevant, I promise):

...What the hell do Chrissy Tiegen’s boobs have to do with Dystopia? Well, to answer that, I want to first start with a simple overview: What is dystopia?

Let’s consult Mirriam-Webster:

Dys·to·pia: A place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.

...Sounds awful. And it also sounds an awful lot like today. Here. Now.

But I think this definition, while accurate, isn’t necessarily what we all have in mind when we think of a Dystopia. Most immediately, comparisons to the worlds of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World are made when the topic of dystopia comes up. So for the purposes of this column and all future episodes of it, we will define dystopia like John Joseph Adams did in his piece on Dystopian Fiction:

In a dystopian story, society itself is typically the antagonist; it is society that is actively working against the protagonist’s aims and desires. This oppression frequently is enacted by a totalitarian or authoritarian government, resulting in the loss of civil liberties and untenable living conditions, caused by any number of circumstances, such as world overpopulation, laws controlling a person’s sexual or reproductive freedom, and living under constant surveillance.

...Wow. Still sounds like now. But the good news lies in that first bit: we’re not under the control of a totalitarian and/or authoritative government...Yet.

There’s constant surveillance, but we bring it upon ourselves. And it’s not by the government, it’s by the corporations who benefit from knowing every little detail about you. Vizio and Samsung “Smart televisions” listening in when they shouldn’t be. Apple and Google collecting all of your travels via GPS, even when you’re not using your map. Literally thousands of apps that have some form of “beacon” tracking software running 24/7, to determine if you’re near a location broadcasting high-freqency tones to see what kind of shopper you are — because the game, makeover simulator, or social app they’re embedded in are fun and FREE!

It’s ubiquitous to a point of normalization. And the general consensus is “eh, so what? I don’t do anything all that interesting anyway.” Except it IS interesting to the advertisers, device builders, app developers, marketers, and other folks who are slowly but surely gaining complete control of the very ways we communicate day in and day out.

It’s nothing new, though. Television and Radio have been doing this since a week after each was invented. Soap Operas are called “Soap Operas” because they were invented to promote sales of dish, laundry, and hand soap. Your favorite radio station played the music you liked for 3-5 songs in a row to get you to stick around for a few ads. But what was the harm? You got free stories and free access to tunes, and all you had to pay was a little attention when the music stopped and a little jingle for a car dealership or that local restaurant came on.

But these days, it’s gotten downright sinister. In 2014, Facebook was caught deliberately manipulating users’ news feeds to manipulate their emotional state to see what effect depression and/or happiness had on buying and ad interaction. And since then, there is no denying the role that social networks and network carriers have played in your everyday life. Companies like Palantir and Cambridge Analytica profit from this, specifically dealing in information gleaned through data mining of social networks to sell to companies, political campaigns, and other organizations to market to you.

This is the point that Zeynep Tufekci makes in her stellar TED talk on machine learning, artificial intelligence, and ethics in computing:

The algorhythms have even become so smart, they can unintentionally out sex workers, predict your mental health and tendency toward depression, and even predict potential riot outbreaks based on sociopolitical densities and news events. Target cleverly sent ads for baby clothing and nursery items to women who might be pregnant based on their predicitve analytics, outing a teen girl who hadn’t told her family yet.

They can even detect any “boob” or bra photo you have on your phone. And that’s where Chrissy Teigan’s boobs come into the conversation:

We live in a society where the vast majority of communication takes place via text through a tiny screen, littered with happy-looking hieroglyphs meant to bring intimacy and emotional meaning to a cold medium. According to a much-cited Gallup poll from 2014, Texting and mobile messaging made up over 64% of all communications among Americans under age 60. Fast-forward to 2017, and the number of mobile handsets in use across America has increased by 27% since then. 98% of Americans over the age of 14 own a cellphone of some kind. So, in three years, given that there have been no large-scale EMPs which have crippled a massive number of devices, cell towers, or networks, it’s safe to assume that texting has increased from a majority to even more of one. And that’s not even counting instant messaging, email, Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit threads. That’s just good “old fashioned” mobile handset texting.

Add them together, and you account for 91% of all communication in the United States of America. And every single one of those above mentioned platforms mine every post, statement, comment and picture you send for intel about how best to market to you... They know you better than you know yourselves.

Every single tech vendor in Silicon Valley and around the world is vying for your attention through your mobile device, 24/7, 365. They don’t just want it. They need it, because without it, they die. Long ago, they figured out that the most effective way to get your attention is to literally hack your brain to make you think it’s all about you.

It’s not that the police are going to march down your street in riot gear and demand your subjugation. The government — including the police — have no interest or need to go door to door to control you. They simply use the existing platforms that DO control your daily flow of information.

And that’s how Facebook and Twitter sold over a million dollars worth of advertising to Russian-linked firms in the 2016 election. Facebook literally built an advertising blueprint based on political leanings and support for advertisers to use when buying ads against those interests:

When questioned about it, Facebook denied this at first. Evidence was presented, proving that targeted ads were in fact bought by Russian organizations with Kremlin ties. Their reaction was to immediately scrub the platform of as much content as possible in groups, accounts, and pages tied back to Russia. Finally called on the carpet by no less an entity than the Untied States Congress, Twitter, Facebook, and Google have been a little more forthcoming to the exact breadth and reach of the Russian disinformation campaign during the 2016 election.

Of course, it’s too late now. The damage has been done. Now, we get at most a very South-Parkian Exxon executive style “We’re sorry.”

Not to get all Black Mirror “What if phones, but too much?” esque, but folks... We’re headed to dystopia. And the intent of this column is to keep track of the little breadcrumbs we leave along that path.

More Precursors To Dystopia for the week of October 24-31:

That’s it. Have any comments or insights you’d like to share? Please comment, I’d like to hear them and discuss. Have a good week.

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Joe Peacock is a writer and producer of the Screenland cyberculture documentary series on RedBull.TV, and author of the Marlowe Kana cyberpunk novel series.

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