Sorry, Google, I won’t spy on myself for you

I turned down a chance to spy on myself for Google. This was a real offer: Google, picking my address at random (or so it says) offered me a modest sum of money if I would let them install a monitor on my computer that would report on everything I did online.

Google claimed it wanted to better understand what users do online so as to provide a better Internet experience, or something to that effect. It wasn’t hard for me to turn this offer down, despite Google sending me two letters and having someone call me on my home phone. I was not gentle in turning down the offer but, so far, my Internet connection has not been cut off in revenge.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the real reason for Google taking a personal interest in me and, presumably, untold thousands of others: Advertising.

FenceGoogle evidently seeks further refinements in the algorithms it uses to “tailor” advertising to its Gmail and other users, based on what you are reading or the content of your e-mail. And likely for other, more nefarious purposes. It is disquieting how accepted corporate breaches of privacy seem to be accepted. A son-in-law of a friend, prompted by being asked what he does for a living, actually saw himself as providing a necessary service when he explained how he works for a technology company to tailor advertising to the profile of a user, complaining that non-tailored advertising “would be a waste” — for the recipient of the advertising!

We’ve gone far down a slippery slope when being bombarded by corporate advertising is considered a public service.

This is simply one logical outgrowth of the concept that corporations shouldn’t be taxed. Bus stops, building walls, the insides and outsides of public transportation vehicles, even the sidewalks, are crammed with advertising — city governments ask them to buy advertising space instead of taxing them. National governments borrow from the wealthy and from corporations instead of taxing them; less so can local governments, given the damocles’ sword that corporations can dangle. Tax us? We’ll just move our factory. Voilà! No more pesky taxes to pay.

The ‘right’ to do whatever you want to others

There is no reason to expect technology companies to act any different from those in older industries. It’s not surprising that many Silicon Valley millionaires style themselves as libertarians: What more fundamental “right” could there be for such people than the “right” to be left alone, i.e., to not pay taxes or submit to regulations. Never mind that their newly minted piles of money are built on infrastructure created by government agencies and paid for by taxpayers. The Internet was invented in a Pentagon laboratory; the World Wide Web in a European research laboratory. Global positioning satellites, products of government space programs, are the basis of many a private profit.

The working people whose taxes paid for these technologies aren’t receiving renumeration, but Silicon Valley millionaires certainly are.

So it’s more than a little hypocritical for eight technology companies (AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo) to suddenly declare opposition to government spying programs. The eight corporations grandly call for limiting governments’ authority to collect users’ information; for oversight and accountability; transparency about government demands; respecting the free flow of information; and international treaties to harmonize privacy rules.

It is not beyond notice that these corporations said nothing on this topic until Edward Snowden provided the world with details of spying programs by the U.S. National Security Administration, Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters and others. Indeed, the president of a lobbying group, the Center for Democracy and Technology, admitted in an interview with The Guardian that the eight companies are motivated by a fear of losing business in the wake of revelations of their routine facilitation of U.S. government spying.

The extent to which they have lost some of their public standing due to the uncovering of their cozy relations with spying agencies has resulted in this public-relations effort. Nonetheless, Silicon Valley millionaires’ libertarian principles hasn’t stopped them from using “free trade” agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which has very little to do with trade and much to do with tightening corporate control over society) to get some of their fondest wishes snuck in through the back door.

Technology companies are well represented among the 605 corporate lobbyists who have access to the otherwise secret Trans-Pacific Partnership text, through their own executives and through organizations such as their Information Technology Industry Council.

Why is corporate spying different than government spying?

There is not one word in the jeremiad about privacy from corporate spying. Facebook and some other social-media websites collect more personal information than does the NSA. These torrents of personal information have one core use — to be monetized by Facebook and its cohorts. Advertisers would love to have your personal information in order that they can tailor the advertisements shown you, and follow you with their ads whenever you are online. The more information you willingly hand over to social-media networks, the more they are going to profit from you and the less privacy you have.

Google has decided to supplement its data gathering through direct spying conducted by software directly installed on your home computer. The ability to profit from your detailed personal information by selling it to advertisers and who knows whom else is valuable enough to Google that it is willing to part with minuscule crumbs from its cash hoard to induce you to provide it to them. Maybe next year, Google will offer a small payment if you’ll provide a DNA sample. Many a pharmaceutical company would like to have such information and we should not fall out of our chairs in shock if the libertarian heroes of Silicon Valley are willing to get it for them.

We are outraged by government spying. As we should be. Why, however, is there pervasive silence over corporate spying? Big Data is watching you, and is likely more efficient at it than Big Brother. Is it because capitalist ideology has so inculcated the world with the idea that government is always bad and the private sector is always good? Is it because that ideology’s insistence that creating a profit is the sum of human existence, regardless of who is hurt? It it because corporate domination of every sphere of life has become so taken for granted that it is no more noticed than the air we breath? Is because everything of human creation is being reduced to a commodity, even our own privacy?

Government spying and corporate spying lie along the same continuum. Government is not some disembodied entity floating above society; it is a reflection of the most influential and powerful entities and groups within a given society. The largest industrialists and financiers are those most powerful in a capitalist country — governments thus act on behalf of those interests in opposition to the interests of the working people who comprise the vast majority.

The world system of capitalism requires a center; that center, the United States, necessarily goes the furthest in accommodating these elite interests. It is then no surprise that so much of the spying conducted by U.S. spying agencies concentrates on gleaning industrial and trade secrets from other countries and on suppressing domestic peaceful political dissent. The technology companies are among the beneficiaries, making their sudden privacy advocacy naked hypocrisy, nothing more. I’ll no more spy for Google than for the NSA.

The high cost of new and improved

Planned obsolescence is not a natural phenomenon like the tides. Yet most of us accept it as such. I’ve been forced to think about this because my computer is not long for this world. Eight years ago, it was as up to date as can be. Now, Mac OS 10.3 is evidently one step removed from a stone tablet.

That in itself is a solvable problem. But the friendly and knowledgeable computer person who advised me on new computer options calmly told me that some of my crucial software programs won’t be readable on the latest system. I will have a great many files that will become unreadable (yes, I do back up) without having to cobble together some cumbersome solution.

“New and improved” is marketing gospel. Well, it’s mighty big business — as much as $1 trillion is spent on marketing in the United States alone. People have to buy a whole lot of stuff to justify all the money spent on them to buy it. If products work for a long time, people won’t be moved to buy all that “new and improved” stuff. That’s where planned obsolescence comes in — it’s simply big corporations forcing us to buy new stuff.

Having a new computer isn’t a terrible thing in itself. But having your software be made outdated, thereby rendering many years of writing inaccessible, shouldn’t be the price paid for “progress.” As the friendly and knowledgeable computer person explained just how behind the new and improved times I was, I sighed and said to him, “This is why I don’t like capitalism. It’s all this planned obsolescence.” The computer person, clearly an intelligent person (and working for a quite reputable computer retailer), looked at me totally blankly. He had no idea of what I could be talking about.

To him — and far from him alone — the rapid updating of computer software and hardware was some natural phenomenon, as natural as the tides. I am not arguing here for stasis, nor am I unused to dealing with new computers. Because my original profession, newspaper journalism, was among the first industries to undergo computerization, I’ve been writing on computers since 1978. There were no personal computers then, nor was the concept of “user friendly” yet in existence.

We used highly specialized, balky computers where one had to continually devise methods of getting the machine to do what it was supposed to do but often would not. So I can say I am quite pleased at the advances of the past couple of decades. But continually updating systems so that they become obsolete in a few years is not “new and improved” — it is “let’s make people buy more of our stuff.” What about the many people who can’t afford to keep buying more stuff?

At least the electricity doesn’t have new operating systems

This perpetual consumer arms race is hardly limited to computers, although not necessarily carried as far in other industries. Can you imagine that, needing to replace your decade-old automobile, you go to a dealer, only to find out this year’s new model runs on a different type of fuel, and that you no longer can go to your local gas stations because it won’t run on the same old fuel. Or what if the electricity was changed every few years? Sorry, we’re on a different voltage this year, so all your home’s power sockets are now useless, and you can’t use your lamps or appliances.

Although other industries don’t have the audacity of computer and software makers, a relentless push to induce more consumer purchases is endemic. The weight and size of what we buy is bigger. And it is wrapped up in ever more packaging. The social costs of all this unnecessary consumption are high, and are paid for in environmental destruction.

Here are two statistics that put some perspective on this immense waste:

Add in the immense costs of advertising to induce us to buy stuff we otherwise wouldn’t want or need, and we are talking mountains of waste. Obtaining figures is difficult, but estimates of the money spent on marketing in the U.S. per year range from $460 billion to $1.07 trillion.* Further add in the costs of raw materials, production and transportation, the effects of all this on the environment and the psychological stresses on people continually told they are inadequate with owning the latest gadget, and the impact of new and improved becomes clearer.

All we need is another Earth

Almost all of the world’s higher-income countries, and many lower-income countries, are consuming far beyond Earth’s ability to recuperate. To put this in stark terms, a study by the non-profit group Global Footprint Network estimates that humanity is consuming the equivalent of one and a half earths. The group’s study says:

“This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we only have one.”

The Living Planet Report 2012, a study produced by WWF–World Wide Fund For Nature in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and Global Footprint Network, provides country-by-country and region-by-region breakdowns. It finds that the Middle East/Central Asia, Asia-Pacific, North America and European Union regions are each consuming about double their regional biocapacity. Africa and “other Europe” are about even, while Latin America is currently consuming at less than half its biocapacity.

To this it should be added that Africans themselves use less — much of the consumption there (and in other developing areas) is generated by multi-national corporations headquartered in stronger countries. People in poor countries consume minuscule amounts in comparison to the wealthy of the world and the middle classes of the advanced capitalist countries.

The Living Planet Report’s conclusions, despite being frequently couched in moderate language, nonetheless declare that “business as usual” will lead us to disaster:

“Clearly, the current state of human development, based on increased consumption and a reliance on fossil fuels, combined with a growing human population and poor overall management and governance of natural resources, is unsustainable. Many countries and populations already face a number of risks from biodiversity loss, degraded ecosystem services and climate change, including: food, water and energy scarcity; increased vulnerability to natural disasters; health risks; population movements; and resource-driven conflicts.” [page 10]

All those shiny computers and mobile phones — and so many other consumer products produced in every greater numbers — use metals mined from around the world, often under dangerous conditions. Many of these products are assembled under brutal sweatshop conditions. The environmental damage from moving all these raw materials, manufactured parts and finished products around the world is enormous, and increasing as more destructive and capital-intensive technologies are necessary to extract less accessible resources. We tend to not think about these costs.

“New and improved” is of human creation. If it were as natural as the tides, there wouldn’t be advertising bombarding us everywhere we turn. We have only one Earth and, for now, the rest of the universe is out of our grasp. In a satirical short story written by the science fiction author Stanisław Lem, space-faring marketers set off a series of supernovas that, from Earth, align in the night sky to spell out the name of the product they were promoting. Imagine the budget for that campaign!

And imagine life forms on the planets orbiting those exploded stars — would our morals be so low as to destroy all life on multiple planets to advertise a product? Surely they would not. Yet we seem to be on a course to destroy life on this planet for the sake of short-term corporate profits. Is new and improved really that important?

* The former estimate (from 2008) from Charles W. Lamb, Joseph F. Hair, Jr., Carl McDaniel, Marketing [South-Western Cengage Learning, Mason City, Ohio, USA, 2009]; the latter estimate (from 2005) from the Metrics 2.0: Business & Market Intelligence web site.