I remember exactly the moment I thought I’d been hacked. I had smoked weed, not for the first time, after having gone through college with a number of experiences to remember vividly and a busy worklife, plus a relationship of mutual trust and a band that was a reason for joy and moments that made everything matter. But it’s not about my story. This story isn’t about my story, and if I ever do this again, you can totally cancel my blog. I just wanna start there because we, adults, tend to think a cautionary tale might not work anymore; so instead of talking about the girl who never disobeyed her parents and played in the rain so she never knew what it was to get wet all of a sudden (which, to be honest, is not even so plausible these days), we tell something that happened to us so that they’ll remember. And at that moment, the daddy is the daddy; a mom is a mom. Anyway, I think I got hacked in June 2013. That was precisely when The Guardian covered the NSA bulk collection of data from American citizens and abroad. The story includes the classification of the documents as “top secret” and the term “telephony metadata”, maybe a first admission that internet service providers were “managing” the web based on inferred indentity, but were still able to operate with addresses and physical identification, including location trackers, to make a list of all the accounts you’ve ever made and do whatever they wanted with that information — from selling you a better pillow to advising you to start couple’s therapy. My first reaction, when I learned about it, was to delete my Pornhub account; but that wasn’t a series of events I ever looked at in more detail: I’d made very close contacts with a lot of people from Gifyo, one or two in particular, a site prior to Instagram and Snapchat, where you made gifs of yourself and had a social-network-like profile, including private messaging. The slogan was: “your life in motion”. My conflicting interests, especially having found out about the site on Pornhub, quickly became an issue; but not for me, because I can’t remember ever enjoying myself as much as back then. Of course, I didn’t know what people already knew, and then came the suspiscion that one of the “random contacts” was actually leading a hate group, full of leaks and sensitive information. I deleted my Gmail and all the apps associated with it, then started over. That’s when the adult account was finally gone, but nobody even knows I met this person, who very likely threatened me with every word she ever spoke, including this one time when I lost the last bus from Sao Paulo to Santos and stayed at the bus station overnight, Skype on my tiny Samsung Pocket Android. Internet speeds were terrible, so the service provider wasn’t very helpful, and they sure didn’t show me a notification for free Uber, because in case you don’t remember, it didn’t exist yet. The girl’s name was Jessica, apparently.
Jessica didn’t know a lot about my life. But she went as far as visiting my university, despite not being a student, to meet some people. Who were they? I have no idea. The campus was big. Including post-graduation, almost 50 thousand people gather at the University of São Paulo’s biggest campus in Butantã, West Sao Paulo neighborhood, according to data from a 2018 story promoting research on student well-being, that starts with an open question: “what does well-being mean to you?” For me, it used to be music, beer, a good class, good sex and fun trips. Is that confusing? Maybe for some. You could just replace your area of work. Instead of a good class, which is what I tried to do from 7am to 11pm, you could say taking care of families in distress was your thing, or injecting medicine in a patient’s arm to heal his or her pain, getting creative with copy, serving all tables and seeing everyone likes the restaurant or bar where you work. For me, it was my measure of control: I had a schedule, tried not to get lost, but I really thought I had mastered the art of going through the day changing subjects and contexts rarely mentioning what else was going on in my life. Until I had to. That was for students who seemed friendly enough, and I somehow trusted — because, even at work (and especially there), it’s all about human bonds and deals. How this surveillance narrative affected not just my job but America’s reputation and my entire personal life is a theme to be debated more extensively — but I believe it has. You don’t wanna read another story on how people spy on you, right? In 2022, you’ve probably heard Shoshanna Zuboff talk about Pokémon Go. She says a few other things too:
Prediction continues to evolve and competition continues to intensify. Pretty soon, there’s a new realization: the most predictive data comes from intervening in your behavior and in the state of play, in order to nudge, coax, herd it in the direction of the outcomes that we are guaranteeing to our business customers; herding your behavior in the direction of our revenues and, ultimately, our profits. What is new here is that at no other time in history have the wealthiest private corporations had at their disposal a pervasive global architechture of ubiquitous computation able to amass unparalleled concentrations of information about individuals, groups and populations, sufficient to mobilize the pivot from the monitoring to the actuation of behavior, remotely and at scale.
Totalitarian power, according to Harvard scholar Shoshana Zuboff (on YouTube).
Why mention that this lecture was given in Amsterdam? That doesn’t seem relevant. But one of the interesting things Zuboff says (I mean every word) is that “human future markets should be illegal” because “the illegitimate, secret, unilateral taking of human experience for translating into data should be illegal”. This extends to finance and to social media as we all know it: an opportunity land. In reality, as the scholar mentions, we came to believe knowledge was offered to us, but in fact, it was being offered to the companies all the time. Besides the theoretical point, there are many aspects where we remain in the dark: how does a fintech assess my credit, and what is the number on that “score”? How do I know who’s actually accessing my content, and why do I not trust that my “impressions” are actually real? There are many points I want to discuss, but I’ll go further on two of these sections, for readership ease and maybe (at ths point, I really don’t know) pedagogical purposes.
1) What’s legitimate?
Let’s suppose internet influencers are now listed in job seeking sites as it’s become a standard, very common profession. Let’s compare two people. Hannah is a 21 year old who barely posts on Instagram, but is smart enough to say hello more than 2 days a week. Her stories are rare, but she always finds cool things in the videos she took from the algorithm. When she gets bored from trying to find the one that’s more likely to cause impact, she spends 20 minutes with her make up, rehearses a few poses in front of the mirror, tests the camera (which works perfectly and is high definition, by the way), and then takes 10 pictures, the famous carroussel, to post on her account with a number of hashtags. The result? 1k likes and 100 more followers every time, repeat until she’s at the 100k mark. Eventually, people start approaching her for collaborations. She starts to make money to post her body on a social network that expressly bans sexual content and sexual interactions. Bob, on the other hand, is a guy who’s not very fond of social media. Socially anxious, he stumbles from one network to another, always finding the same kinds of recommendations, and nobody really worth his time. Bob isn’t bad-looking, but he doesn’t know how to act in real-life gatherings. His thoughts are often intense, a result of his year-long relationship with pornography and some of the meetings on camera he’s had. He doesn’t take selfies. He hates the idea of intentionally making everyone look at him, because he knows when he was the most vulnerable, the ones looking at him were his enemies, who eventually hacked his account and saved his videos online using a remote screen recorder, which he can’t prove, but the thought of it makes him want to delete one account after another, in fear of what might happen next. For some reason, Bob posts interesting things, not particularly mainstream and definitely not following the algorithm’s recommendations, but promotes the work of his favorite people and organizations, including journalism, art, projects of public interest, politics and motivational phrases, as well as memes. But it’s not every day. He gets on the platform Instagram 2 days a week: literally, Saturday and Sunday, because the other days are for cleaning the house, taking care of his sick dad, doing the laundry, shopping for food, playing with the pets and listening to music or some other leisure activity. He’s struggling to find work, but tries every day, looking at the available opportunities on at least 5 different websites.
It’s important to understand that Bob’s work isn’t legitimate, according to the platform. He looks for work, but he’s not working. Actually, if you want to post on “social issues” on Facebook (yeah, I know, Meta), you have to send in your ID and get approved, then tag all of them. Surprinsingly, it’s also possible, and very easy in fact, to say you’re releasing a paid promotion (saying a company gave you money to talk about them), and regardless of that being absolutely false, get your post published. Is that legitimate? By definition, it’s the opposite of it; but what matters is that Bob doesn’t have a nice booty, and he doesn’t go to the gym. He doesn’t take full body pictures, and he’s always by himself, not with some hot chick, because his friends are many, but all of them seem to be models. Hannah, though, takes the work seriously. 20 minutes of make up is real work. And she has a routine. Hell, she even has a business model: the use of hashtags, the conversations with people interested in her work, the constant presence, the study of social media paradigms to convey the most impressionable appearance standard: all of this is rewarded, and although she can’t put that in her resume, her bank account is doing fine and she doesn’t have to see ads for delivery food, because she’s a faithful customer. Legitimate? Of course not, that’s sexist.
2) What is secret?
They say personal life and professional lives don’t mix. Then they make LinkedIn, Slack, and even before this particular app, Facebook Workplace, a thing literally nobody talks about. The company email has more features than Google, but private communication has been the center of the story in a number of media scandals involving people of power, from Nixon to Lula; from Johnny Depp to Rihanna. Who decides on the future of the programs that keep a nation’s fortune and well-being glued together and distributed responsibly are people with a lot of scrutiny from the media and society in general, but when you make their private conversations a case for an ever-expanding annihilation of the concept of privacy, then you have to take a few steps back and say: “sorry, what?” Johnny Depp was accused of sexual harrassment; RIhanna supported the porn industry and has been in relationships with men involved in serious criminal charges. Do you wanna hang out with them? Do an interview? Are you waiting anxiously for the new work where they’re featured or do you wanna talk about them on the internet based on a story you didn’t even click on? Though these questions are never answered because people just post and run (which applies to politics as well, considering that sometimes they’re banned because the profile was made from a secret marketing operations team in what many journalists call digital militias), actually answering them depends on public sentiment: if one perceives that taking a stance against a particular public person or giving a say on any given topic will negatively impact work reputation, they just might keep their mouth shut. And that is not a very warming sign of the connectivity promise coming to fruition.
If we look at relationships, there’s certainly a lot to be debated, but it heats up a bit. From your number of followers, mentioned here, to how many messages you send every day, to whom, why and where, platforms rank your so-called “engagement”. I wonder if there’s a line of code saying: “if single, DM is positive; if commited, DM is negative”. At the same time, if you get a message from work and you can’t finish the reply to your girlfriend on what you’re supposed to buy at the supermarket, you’re 10 times more likely to lose your job; but if you’re distracted, exhausted from work, and your girlfriend is studying, let’s say, then you want to look at some tiddies, this well-being app, which tracks how much you’re sitting behind a computer, by the way, sends a notification, in the middle of work: “babe is cheating on you!” Of course, artificial intelligence thinks like a war machine, so the very idea that a straight person is experimenting with another sexual orientation or experience is a system error. Imagine the bot conversation about the fact you were just wondering how nipples other than hers looked like: puffy, rosey, bigger, thick aureolas, perky, tiny? Babe might just think you’re unhappy, but maybe she’ll get a surprise by the end of the night. Or maybe, just maybe, she’s looking at different sizes of vegetables, cause she takes care of all the cooking and does so for her entire family.