In this economy? A look at verification and motive

Think about the web as a tool available for the power elites. You won’t be wrong: financial apps are booming; relationships have taken on new dimensions associated with what everyone calls user experience and community standards; job hunting is mentioned by many as a keyword game for machines to triage your need for compensation, which you might not get because you forgot to include arbitrarily determined essential skills. But you either go micro or macro. It’s not that some people don’t bother to look at the stats: they probably wouldn’t like to read that word, rejecting it strongly as it means something not just unknown, but absolutely useless. Analytics doesn’t integrate their vocabulary, content strategy isn’t paramount. But any business has been approached, if not online with ads for expanding their reach with specialized agencies, then at least in a conversation with a possible facilitator, like the guy who wants the stores in the neighborhood to start using a new payments processing machine. That’s the case for Stone, an Information Technology and Services company, committed to being the Brazilian entrepreneur’s partner. Started in 2012 and headquartered in Sao Paulo, it started trading in the NYSE in 2018, election year; with over 15 thousand employees (how many are on LinkedIn is another story), it attracts applicants from all over the country, perhaps because of its culture of “no bullshit”, or maybe the education partnerships, listed on their website. Considering the almost 2 million clients as of April 2022 and over 120 billion dollars in transactions over the past year, it’s definitely a big player; and recruitment manager Lívia Kuga prides herself of these achievements in almost classic corporate discourse: with the development of emotional intelligence and what she calls culture rituals, she seeks for “the most humanized approach possible with use of technology and machine learning”, reports Brazilian finance magazine Exame. But stock price last year was at almost 70 dollars, and it’s dropped to as low as 9. Why is any of this important, though, if investing is clearly for the elites, and not the common citizen?

Think about it this way: you wrote a tweet, but on the way, your Wi-Fi dropped. You weren’t connected anymore, and your reaction was to tap twice on your Android phone icon, so it recognized the network again and you could finally share your small message with your circle, and then each user could expand it, within their own circle, by reposting it. If they’re following, it takes a click on the app to see it. That’s what impressions are: the potential reach of your post. You see something exceptional, you make sure to share (using the button, not your wallet); but when you have groceries at hand (I’m one of those people who only grabs them when the payment has been approved), you don’t want to wait more than 5 seconds. That’s just the world we live in now. Why? Because financial services have always had priority in systems management, except there are many kinds of systems; in fact, considering what machine learning can do, one could argue we’re walking towards a myriad of undisclosed information, fed to the masses in homeopathic doses. Let’s be real about this: why did the network drop? Reports show that, in Britain, 44% of ISP clients have experienced connection issues, while Windows 11 is apparently working alongside Fing, a network security company that displays in real time service outages and shortcomings on your phone. Can you imagine the distress in a gaming competition, in case there was a glitch? For those who aren’t always up-to-date with every discussion, some gaming competitions have been reportedly tense, and the culture doesn’t seem to be very gender balanced. But regardless of the examples we might draw from this in a service quality kind of perspective, there’s an important concept that needs to be addressed: verification.

The world’s richest man reportedly bought the world’s biggest media company. That’s how I put it, before it was announced, when Twitter sold for 44 billion dollars to Elon Musk, both epic industry visionary and slow ranting entrepreneur. There’s been rising concern over what that might mean in relation to controversial figures banned from platforms, notably the case of ex-president of the United States, Donald Trump. Whatever the case, when it comes to inflammatory speech, a first test of concept is necessary: is trust verifiable? Some people would trust a person more when they hear their voice, instead of text; others prefer video; for a long time, presence was the most important aspect, in face-to-face interactions, but apparently the younger generation never thought about how they could afford a home (first theme on my pedagogical material, by the way). There are theories saying we assimilate stuff from visual, auditory and other sense-related stimuli; data on the new ways of communication will take this concept to the test, as well as educators in search for solutions for digital demands. It’s one thing to map out a student’s understanding of a broad theme over a videocall; another, completely different set of procedures, to ask them to answer a poll–and even traditional media has already started using this massively, to make sure people actually read and get informed. In a way, the media is verifying if we’re actually using it, not just scrolling; and that’s good, right? Now think about the economy.

When I was young, I didn’t have an allowance. My dad knew, before social networks existed, who my friends were. They came home, I introduced them (or they introduced themselves; it was 2003), and we hung out to play basketball. Surprisingly, for some, I did that; but it was mostly my brother, and I sat there doing nothing, hearing that particular sound of Nike and Adidas shoes against the court. Eventually, my dad even bought me one of those: Adidas Mad Handle, an interesting pair in grey and black synthetic leather. There’s so much I wouldn’t be able to handle in the future, and I definitely got mad; but that has nothing to do with basketball. My girlfriend at the time (after I left the boys’ club to have a relationship with a teenager, and meet her family, then stay for 10 years) was a great communicator in more than one language; but we found our ways, though I barely opened my mouth–except with her. I would later get mad, indeed. Not in the sense of angry: just overwhelmed and absolutely incapable of “handling” my responsibilities as a young adult, which I thought I could do when I was taking the stage to play the drums. If someone was ever in a position to confirm this story, it doesn’t really matter: the humanized machine processing isn’t there for deleted accounts, is it? As for sports, we now have camera footage which can be requested for verification of a foul, penalty or any kind of conflict during the game, at least in soccer matches. Why FIFA is headquartered in Switzerland, famous world tax haven? That is barely questioned. So what exactly do we want to verify?

Let’s suppose you go into a convenience store in the middle of the night. The lady at the cash register sees you struggling with your change, grabbing a beer from the freezer but putting it back, then going to the end of the line as party girls and boys come inside with their cars parked at the gas station, in front of the big mall, ready to go somewhere else and have loads of fun–metaphorically or not, mind you. They pay with their phones for a bottle of Red Label, and you learned to enjoy Jack Daniels, the oak taste, precisely what made you interested in tobacco; but now you’re a serial smoker. The banner behind most cash registers in convenience stores, bakeries, restaurants, coffee shops, bars and even newsstands will show discounts on the price of cigarettes. You check to see if you have 5 real, but unfortunatelly, buddy, you don’t. There’s 5 cents missing. And well, since nobody here invests in certain kinds of assets, what the hell is 5 cents, right? The newsstand guy shouted out to you as you walked away on the previous day, saying your count was wrong and you should give the product back. On a number of occasions, though, you knew it was absolutely right, having checked it before going there and counted all coins at the breakfast table; it was still breakfast for you, though it was 7PM. They’d be closing soon. You had to go buy or not have the money for a cheap pack, spending the night awake without access to your phone (and because this involves some level of paraphrasing, let’s address how verification plays a role in this story later). Unlike the newsstand guy (who refused to give you a pack you weren’t even supposed to be able to buy anywhere, since it never got a sanitary authority inspection or passed a national health risk and standard evaluation, all because of 5 cents), the lady at the convenience store says: “You know what? Since you’re always here, you can take it. You’ll bring it next time.” So you walk out past the ATM, and it’s raining. You don’t have a car, but thankfully it’s just 3 blocks. Of course, it depends if you count the blocks behind the blocks, but I’m sure nobody’s interested in that level of scrutiny. They’re not showing the components of the product anymore. Both sides now alert consumers of the harms it may cause; you still open it, light it up, sometimes with a match, eventually tilting your head down to the oven and maybe burning your own hair, because a lighter is actually more expensive than the freaking poison pack. And then you get on Twitter on your phone. Now, here’s an interesting question: when you unlocked your phone, after paying for a product in coins (literal coins, everyone), what were the party girls and boys doing? Apparently, nobody cares.

On the next day, you’d have to see about your bank’s digital signature. You forgot your letters password, which allows you to make ATM transactions, so you need to go there in person to sort things out; but if you’re thinking about digital payments, you don’t get to do that if you haven’t made a specific registration for any possible online transaction associated with your account. Today, whenever you say account, people will inevitably think of Instagram; but is that fair? As it turns out, the social network has more verification than the bank; but that’s very debatable, considering that biometric technology has been used in a range of institutions. But social media verification is a process few people understand. First, because Twitter championed it; second, because it speaks authority. But what authority? Katy Perry’s version of it? Nothing against sexual freedoms and discourse to be made available, but when it becomes mainstream to the point of elevating “I wanna see your peacock” to the most widely marketed message on the internet, we have to at least question something in there. And for many, it’s questioning the peacock–meaning, of course, the validity of that message, something you can do by actually asking people what they want to see. Unfortunately, some people don’t remember the former world’s richest man’s Op-ed on the newspaper he bought at the time of a scandal involving his sending of intimate images, and now The Washington Post, which arguably (or not) takes on difficult topics on internet culture, describes a pre-pandemic world where 25% of teens sent the freaking peacock, while the rate increased with lockdown. It doesn’t consider a particularly important factor that expands the margin of error: trust, sentiment and false reporting, not to mention the not-so-twenty-first century idea that, if we live online, we have sex online. Excuse me, but only 15% of teens have sex? I could believe that if I studied in a Catholic school, but not being promoted on an adult site. Hypothetically, of course (isn’t Twitter an adult site, since we’re touching upon this subject?)

But what if nobody asks? For example, another Brazilian NYSE listed company, Nubank, made possible that payments could be processed with card approximation. Technicalities don’t matter, for now. But I remember the time I had just left my family home to buy myself something different to drink, and I was paying with the new card; I had disabled the approximation feature because I didn’t think that was secure in any way: I’d been through a two-step verification nightmare, losing access to my social accounts in a mix of bad luck, bad anger management and frankly, bad management overall, when my phone number was cancelled and the 2FA feature was on. There was no way to get in again. And I should’ve thought reasonably: if the number had been cancelled and that was the problem, then, instead of looking for social media support solutions, I would have to see about the issue with the ISP, in this case the communications company, responsible for the data. The policy is inactivity can disable the account; but not that non-solicited, non-authorized SMS ads and messages searching for indebted citizens with a different name than my own were ever problematic; in fact, I used to get them every day and just ignore, but the important thing is that you enter your tax payer identification (a poor translation of Physical Person Registration, or CPF, meaning you’re not the owner of a business acting on a legal contract, just a regular citizen). Isn’t that what they should verify? We do have an option, on today’s new Android features, to report unknown callers and SMS as spam; but social media is a completely different game, and it’s going to take at least one more decade for finance to be completely understood in its contradictions and ideology, which some will catch up on, while others simply won’t–and may spread false information based on campaigns that are actually financed, and make scammer platforms for scammer users profit like no public servant or hard working independent ever would.

A system in Brazil tries to revert the consumer perception and what makes someone a “good payer”, which is otherwise assessed by online activity and purchasing power, with categorizations that third-party companies have used in mass scale through algorithms (Accenture and Cognizant are just two examples, when it comes to recently renamed Facebook, or Meta; reports have been linked previously on the blog). Some users are lucky to be found by certain agencies, organizations and influencers, with blue badges and all; some are not, and their pages on Patreon or even their campaigns on Avaaz get absolutely ignored. But in terms of verification, you might want to know if you’re breaking the law when you start a business or propose new directions for the company. That’s something I learned both with them and media coverage about monetization, hate speech and censorship online, but also with some good old Netflix (no, Netflix is not old, but there’s no book published with cringe on its title, as far as I’m aware). On an episode of the series “Billions” (spoilers), hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod ventures into an investment on the cannabis sector, with an assurance that everything was perfectly legal; that’s how he gets busted, after finding out his newly founded personal bank couldn’t have the company of such a product on its portfolio, given countless lawsuits by its owner and the risk factors that, in the end, made him lose a lot of money, but also the newly founded bank. To escape law scrutiny, he avoids facing the authorities and leaves to Europe. Back to the verification debate, many fictional narratives have explored that concept, either in the investigative kind, like the Law and Order franchise, or documentaries and even romance movies that deal with fidelity in relationships, none of which seeming to address properly and realistically the issue of online identity and freedom, except tentatively in Alyssa Milano’s Brazen, hated by the critics. Notably, nobody’s too excited to talk about how people in certain industries get paid, or even whether they should, considering what they’re doing; but the movie shows a different side of things, which can be very brutal and hard to swallow; the criticism is lack of rawness, not merit in the unprecedented approach of the theme of sex work and stalking, along with the softest of portrayals in a few seconds of sexually suggestive scenes—in comparison, you can do your own research, I’m sure.

As the word fluency gets overused again and the word participation seems to mean nothing, considering how easy it is to argue that nobody really participates in anything when it’s just something on the screen, verification takes on new interpretations; the fluent speaker can understand, but also read between the lines–and if a teacher is well-versed in media literacy, they know how to explore the topic well enough, which doesn’t mean the challenge is well-compensated or the troubles will ever be, no matter who’s associated with them. The algorithm recommends people you should follow, and even selects special profiles made just for you (Happn does, for example). The ethics of these already established practices (including data plans that include dating apps for free) aren’t going to be questioned by a generation that grew up normalizing this, but also reporting anyone that doesn’t like the newest pop artist that they relate to so much, and an ugly face instead of a beautiful ceiling. Of course, one day they’ll wonder if one million streams being multiplied by $0.04 is a good deal; but as long as we can gather in a stadium to celebrate sound and community, love and a thinking society, chaos and aesthetic value, experience and memory, then we’ll be just fine.

The reality, though, is stark here in Brazil and many other countries: the recent most downloaded app nationwide was the government emergency rescue, during a public health crisis; not Peloton, which curiously labels itself as a well-being initiative; The Wall Street Journal points out it went from 50 billion to just 10—emphasis on “just”—recently. I’m contemplative. What my dad tracks, to verify that he’s not going to have a difficult conversation with the doctor, is his blood sugar. Every single day, on a piece of paper that looks like a freaking parchment, brownish and filled with a table for annotating the number processed by a machine nobody paid for in the health sector or public service, but he bought by himself, he carefully injects insulin into his belly, his thigh, one side or another, changing spots eventually because it’s starting to hurt, and then takes the pen to write down the number displayed, first thing in the morning. In return (and I’m forced to indicate sarcasm), several telemarketing companies call the landline, but no voice is heard on the other side; more recently, we have atmosphere songs, interesting bass lines, and would you look at that, even jazz. Needless to say, nobody at home pays for Spotify Premium or has access to 5G.

Back to finance, we’d like to see the way forward. But that means something for the “common American“, who reportedly earns by year an average of $51.480,00; it means something else for the “common Brazilian”, with the average of $2.693,87 a year. Yes, ladies and gentlemen: a year. Important to mention: that is considering the minimum wage, but “informality” in Brazil reached over 47% in 2020–which, I need to point out, is often just another word to describe unemployment. Do you see now how it’s important to follow finance and who are these incredible problem-solving people who thrive in innovation so much they’re listed in the NYSE and have hundreds of millions in revenue?

But we like to keep things simple. Facebook, not led by Bobby Axelrod, wanted to become a bank; it had to answer a few tough questions from the FTC and Congress, which eventually resulted in a 5 billion dollar fine, but nothing compared to the 83 billion they made during the first year of public health crisis (the word is pandemic, and many suggest other terms, but let’s keep it classy–or we might see the words “special operation” pop up here and there; and I’ll avoid linking any more articles). Users are getting paid (abysmally less often than not) to work for the platform, and since the younger generations grew up thinking it was as normal as fire coming out of an oven for the meals they never cooked, while mom and dad did everything for them but their issues were so intense some of them decided to stick a pair of scissors in their arm, they also think it’s normal to find content so easily on their favorite apps. I’m from a generation that didn’t have internet access until I was 15, and that was because of federal and private social inclusion initiatives. I’d never spoken to a foreigner until I was 18 years old. One of them (and I won’t reveal her name or location) was surprised one day, after coming back from a Church group trip to Jerusalem, and we engaged in a bit of chit-chat: “You’re washing the dishes?? I mean, you don’t know what a dishwasher is??” I can’t help but imagine her “verifying” why the kitchen sink in my old family home had a plumbing problem, spending an hour cleaning the grease trap with her bare hands, like I did–along with several other unpleasant tasks. Verifying, it seems to me, has many meanings yet to be explored.

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