The Media Industrial Complex Part II: The Empire of the (Cyber) State
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
To understand the power and influence of our most important touchstones of communication and information, it is important to emphasise their origins, in particular Google.
In the mid nineties, the digital revolution was underway, and anticipating the explosion of cyberspace, research departments of the CIA and NSA - predicting the usefulness of the world wide web as an instrument for capturing what they termed “birds of a feather” algorithms, that framed the predictability of geese flying together in large V shapes - set about applying those observations to how collective groups of people might move together using similar movements online.
To frame this theory, the CIA and NSA established a series of initiatives to directly fund tech entrepreneurs, through a program known as Massive Digital Data Systems (MDDS), naming their first unclassified briefing for computer scientists “birds of a feather”, which took place in San Jose in the spring of 1995.
Amongst the first grants provided by the MDDS program - to capture the ‘birds of a feather’ theory towards building a massive digital library and indexing system using the internet as its backbone - were dispersed to two Stanford University PHD’s, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who were making giant strides in the development of web-page ranking technology to track user movements online. Those grants became the seed funding that was used to establish Google.
Today, Google is the largest program of mass surveillance in history and even though its commercial model is known to openly sells user data to corporations, little is understood about its links to the intelligence communities, and specifically the extent to which the CIA and NSA have weaponised Google’s data for mass surveillance programs, through an estimated data collection budget of $5billion per year.
Deceptively, without advertisements, Google has the appearance of being user-friendly and transparent, when the reality is, Google does not sell its users a product, it sells it’s users. People are the product. In fact, Google’s granular indexing and data collection system takes 90% of its revenue from customer data, which is sold onto advertisers and government agencies. More recently, this monetising of customer privacy and data, has been extended to their browser, Google Chrome; email services, Gmail; their operating system, Android; their location services, Google Maps, and their file storage services Google Drive.
Google operates on a simplified algorithmic indexing system, according to a fine binary line between, black or white, right or wrong, innocent or guilty. Which is especially worrying, when surveillance and intelligence communities, interpreting that data, place citizens into one of various categories, who may as a result find themselves being criminalised based on a simple transgression across a fine algorithmic line, from innocent to guilty. The extent to which Google collaborates with government agencies can be seen in China, where Google created a search engine for the Communist Party that blacklisted searches for 'human rights', buried data unfavourable to the Communist Party, and tracked (on behalf of the Communist Party) users considered appropriate for surveillance.
Another matter entirely is the way search engine algorithms operate on an ordering and indexing system, that is used to manufacture prejudice, through ranking priority or the blacklisting of content. Denying or permitting what information users can see and learn from. This Influencing of public perception can be used to manipulate the general population on political issues and influence voting bias.
To illustrate this point, Research Psychologist, and Harvard PHD, Dr. Robert Epstein, of the American Institute for Behavioural Psychology, conducted a series of experiments to demonstrate how Google could rig elections. Later Dr. Epstein went onto prove that Google had directly manipulated millions of American voters to favour Hilary Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential elections.
It is also important to highlight the role of Google as an instrument of social order and engineering. Especially in terms of the way search engines filter and reduce the world around us into microcosmic mirrors, built according to an algorithmic interpretation (and manipulation) of mass user input, which, favours the collective mind over the individual mind. Whereupon, Google not only funnels our perception, it transforms our original thoughts, intentions and behaviour, into a cloned version of reality. Resulting in the feedback loop of the internet manufacturing a kind of super consciousness, that projects back into the public domain, the mass algorithmic input, synthesised and simplified, as the mass algorithmic output. Consequently imprinting upon (and influencing) collective consciousness and transforming our perceptions, into a watered down version of reality, that replaces the important influence of the individual, with the singularity of the collective. Until over time, the cycle of information and functionality of search engines, becomes a flow of information not driven by the intention of individual user input, but rather, by the policy of the search engine as regulator.
You only see what you already know, and not what you don't know. In other words, there is no new knowledge to be truly gleamed from internet search, when we search for specific information within a limited bandwidth motivated by confirmation bias towards pre-existing beliefs. Which is indeed worrying, when the internet has the confidence of its users as a force for good, that liberates information, is open and free, neutral and unbiased. When in fact, cyberspace is anything but objective, given that 90% of internet search is controlled and regulated by one corporation, Google.
To put this into context, it is important to note that as a global population, every two days we generate as much data as we generated from the dawn of civilisation up until 2003. The difference today, is that the vast majority of web referral traffic goes through two gatekeepers, Facebook and Google. Compared to the historical information output of all books, pamphlets and newspapers throughout record history, that were published as public assets, by a diversity of publishers and printing presses working autonomously to educate different social groups, and serving as the bulwarks of a culturally rich and diverse society.
Under these circumstances, as we progress into the post-digital age, paper books could become a thing of the past, as a handful of corporations, namely Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, will aggregate, index and distribute the vast majority of our public information resources. Which ominously intersects with Orwell’s depiction of a Ministry of Information as the singular publisher, controlling public opinion and consensus through the regular practice of editing and omitting the pages of history, to suit Oceania’s narrative of the day within the context of the interchangeable war with Eurasia or Eastasia. A frightening prophecy that predicts the supremacy of Google who are the world’s biggest censor, blacklisting 10,000 websites daily.
Throughout the pandemic and beyond, the Social Media corporations have been invoking partial and groundless justifications to censor free speech and it is import to examine the legal framework which these social touchstones operate within, and how those frameworks might change in the future.
Section 230 of the Communications Act protects social media platforms through the provision that 'online intermediaries hosting or republishing speech are protected against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what their users publish'. Accordingly, this regulation is the bedrock of a free and open internet that fosters free speech, however, it is applicable only when public forums like Facebook remain neutral, yet, the tech giant, in assuming the role of editor and moderator of the public debate, is directly contravening Section 230. Consequently, new amendments have just been signed by Donald Trump, that will ostensibly go after online platforms engaging in selective censoring, but it remains to be seen whether these amendments will in fact strengthen big tech censorship, by making users liable for their free speech.
Facebook as Editor of the Public Debate & Groupthink
Another point to consider, within the context of free speech, is the influence of Facebook on critical thinking and diversity. This can be illustrated by Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, who suggests 'we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.'
Put into perspective, social media influences the same dopamine rewards centres and neural circuitry motivators, used by slot machines, cigarettes and cocaine, that keeps us hooked. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in motivating behaviour, and is released to signify reward, especially through pleasurable activities such as: eating, having sex, exercise, and, importantly, when we receive the approval of our peers in social interactions.
The trouble with the release of dopamine in the context of social media, is that given the choice between posting controversial content or opinions that might offend others, which reduces our approval rating and number of likes, in turn inhibiting the hit of dopamine received by our neural circuitry; we are more inclined to publish neutral content that appeals instead to the widest audience segment and generates a higher approval rating from our peers. To this end, social media users become incentivised by the brain's dopamine reward centres to water down their content and remain in lockstep with wider consensus. As a result, a new culture arises that sees individual expression and diversity of thought, surrendering to group think and more obedient forms of communication.
The Empire of Cyber Space
At no point in human history have corporations and third parties exercised as much influence upon the social fabric as they do today. Specifically, the handful of conglomerates who control newsprint, television, the video game, music and film industries; together with the world’s biggest corporations whose empire is cyberspace.
As a result, a corporate monopoly, tantamount to imperialism, has become, by proxy, the touchstone for our social adhesion, personal expression, education, information, and entertainment.
What is especially frightening, is the breakneck speed at which this transformation has taken place - it is just thirteen years since Apple launched the I-phone and Facebook reached 30 million users. In this time, technology has become the centrepiece of our lives, with more than 10 hours daily spent plugged into a digital mainframe which places users under the influence of corporate hypnosis, inducing brain wave changes that modifies our visual perception, feelings, and importantly, the muscle memory associated with repeating words and ideas.
Accordingly, the masses are under a modified state of consciousness when using digital technology, that acts as a kind of anaesthesia, taking control of the autonomous processes of self-stimulation, by switching off our intellect, and turning on drives towards the simplified feedback loop of digital imagery, content and links to stimulate the senses.
The impact of digital technology on children is indeed frightening. As paediatrician Michael Rich, Director of the Centre on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital puts it, the growing human brain is constantly building neural connections while pruning away less-used ones, and digital media plays an active role in that process, in as much as what happens on screen provides impoverished stimulation of the brain compared to reality.
In summary, the fountain of human knowledge has become a megalith, motivated by profit and monopoly, within a primacy that runs contrary to the benign qualities that aggregate our humanity. Overall, if we allow this legacy to continue on its current trajectory, then I regret to contemplate the kind of dystopian future our children will inherit, and what hallmarks of our true humanity will remain in the collective consciousness, post-digital revolution.