Big data is no longer just a buzzword for the engineers in Silicon Valley. Today it permeates our social fabric, disrupting our economies and undermining the very foundations of liberal democracy. To comprehend these challenges of our time is thus a central task for progressive parties and politicians.
Today the forces shaping our world aren’t nation states, but rather corporations. These corporations, spread all over the globe, run the global economy on the oil of the Information Age – data. This data, obtained from our phones, laptops, messages, shopping habits and even locations we visit has given corporations great power.
Right-wing propagandist Steve Bannon argued that politics is downstream from culture, an argument originally made by Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. The ability to set the agenda for public discourse is real power, and today that power rests not with the political class but with the corporations.
The Social Media Rage Machine
Modern public discourse, especially on social media, is increasingly defined by rage. Social media algorithms have the ability to amplify conspiracy theories and hatred. Echo chambers, created by our selective following certain people/pages/groups then reaffirms this fear and anger. While this phenomenon is well known are reported on, its political implications are less clear.
To look at the effect of the rage machine on politics, one needs only to look at Europe. Suketu Mehta, in The Guardian, describes “How the west fell for manufactured rage”. The fear mongering around immigrants would just not be possible at the current scale without social media. Similarly, the New York Times studied the role of YouTube on Brazilian politics and the election of Jair Bolsonaro.
The reason social media is critical to the spread of hate, and right-wing ideology, is not demand, but supply. By flooding social media with certain issues like immigration, right-wing groups can game the algorithm to making the issue bigger than it is.
The Overton window is a range of ideas that we find acceptable in mainstream politics. Thanks to the amplification of hate on social media, our tolerance has shifted to the right. Extreme rage an anger becomes normalised, and can go on to affect how the left and centre also respond to issues like immigration.
Modern capitalism has given rise to large corporations that dominate an industry. Like Facebook for social media, Google for search and Disney for entertainment. Through their sheer size and power, such corporations undermine competition and limit innovation.
The digital economy doesn’t work in the manner of conventional markets. Extreme returns to scale, strong network effects and the role of data create major advantages for incumbents. This, combined with weak regulation and enforcement in the United States where they are domesticated, has created the conditions for the largest and most powerful companies in the history of mankind to continue to grow.
As a result of this, a handful of tech giants are the only people prospering in a winner-takes-all economy. Apart from Danish Competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, very few politicians have grasped the true scale of the issue.
Contrary to her American counterparts, Vestager argues for a more liberal political tradition, where the rights of consumers to choose should be taken into account — not just the rights of companies.
Questions About Data Ownership
Finally, there is a big question over who actually owns the all the data created. Currently, the tech giants that have helped create the data by creating apps, devices, services and platforms control the data. But since the data comes from human activity – where we go, what we eat, who we meet etc. doesn’t that mean we should have control over our data?
To answer this question, the European Union adopted the GDPR in 2018. However, there are still many questions that the GDPR does not answer. Currently there are two alternative schools of thought to data ownership.
The first, argues that data should be considered as embodied labour. Writing for The Economist, Lanier et al. argue that “One way or another, societies will have to find a mechanism to distribute the wealth created by AI.” Karin Pettersson wrote in Social Europe– “If data are labour and not capital, the value created should at least partly be channelled back to the owner. Perhaps the way to think about how digital markets work is to compare them to the early days of industrialisation, when profit-maximising capital owners single-handedly could set the price of labour.“
Another argument is for thinking of data as public infrastructure. In such a scenario, the data generated is available for all to use, without limitations in the same way the Creative Commons system works. Ekkehard Ernst argues – “Considering data as a commons which allows the extraction of rents would help restore the balance between individual data suppliers and corporate platform providers. Most importantly, with governments investing in such platforms through citizens’ wealth funds, it would leave incentives for algorithmic development intact and would still allow for stricter competition and improved individual returns on data furnishing.“
Digital markets will reshape society for decades to come. The path we take is not yet clear, but it is a discussion that needs to be had. Right now, to few have too much power over too many, and there is a freighting lack of debate around this.
There is hope however. If we do manage to solve these issues, the data age can become a golden opportunity for progressives to create better conditions for redistribution and innovation, for equality and emancipation. To do that however, politics needs to go back upstream, and shape technology and society through democratic means.