We are playing a dangerous game, all of us, whether we realize it or not. I'm gonna go beyond the scope of publishing for the next few posts in order to address the entirety of the "information distribution network" of which we are inescapably entangled as content consumers as well as content creators. Try not to become too disturbed by the following content, ala "Adam Ruins Everything."
How does the following sound as far as a fun game night?
Start off by gathering together with a mixture of friends and strangers at a large "game bar" where you self-select loose groups. You're prompted to get to know each other by sharing what superhero power you want and by discussing the next tattoo you're gonna get...oh, and possible games to play.
You're then prompted to relocate to more specific "gaming rooms" according to your answers. You hit it off with these new people who like the same games as you (and don't have stupid tattoo ideas). During the course of the conversation, you naturally find yourself making fun of the other game groups. I mean, The Lego Movie was fine and all, but a tattoo of Unikitty?
These games, in the more specific game room, really connect with you. You buy one. You plan another game night with your new "us" group. You go home.
This process should seem familiar. It's what is done to us continuously...digitally.
Make no mistake, we ARE participants whether we are active or passive in the game. Our entire online experience is being sorted and filtered. The results of our queries, the ads and links we see, the stories in our feeds--all of it has been tailored to prompt us toward certain decisions and actions that are driven by a motivation for profit.
Welcome to your new "us" groups.
One of the unfortunate side-effects of this "dangerous game" is ghettoization. Stratification. Call it what you like. Classifying us makes us easier to target with specific calls to action. Based on active and passive feedback, we are grouped with others like us so that fear, anger, and lust triggers can be optimized to prompt our desired behavior. (Fear and Hatred drive ROI better than more nuanced emotions.)
I mean, holy crap, man. Fathom that for just a second...
Your generation, your ethnicity, your orientation, your politics, your religious views, your habits, your tastes...have you shaped these things? Or are they shaping you? Because in any area where you are not actively shaping and defining yourself, information brokers are. They know if you shade toward liberal compassion. They know if you tend to buy impulse, indulgence items late at night. They know if you favor the NFL or the players union when it comes to anthem protests.
The brokers aren't pulling your strings directly. The information dealers are doing that. The brokers control access to your narrative. The brokers pave the way for the dealers to pour fuel on your fire and then profit from your emotional responses.
This is a side note in relation to explaining who the information brokers are, but I challenge us all to actively consider the "us" vs. "them" groups you find yourself in. Did you even realize you were in so many? Out of state drivers? Conservatives? Gun nuts? Religious wackos? Seahawks fans? Smokers? Teetotalers? Urban hipsters? Baby Boomers? The entitled? The fat? The gym rats? Inoculation conspirators? Plastic diaper users? Latte sippers? We can be fanned into hatred for anyone! And information dealers are reaping the profits.
Right now I'm getting pissed at those urban truck owners who somehow think parking across two to three spots will keep me from crowding too close to their precious paint job and dinging it with my neutrally painted, sensibly-sized hybrid vehicle! Damn you! Damn you all to hell! (Now where's my CBD oil to sooth this mongo headache? Oh, damn, I need a new bottle.)
Ehem, still doubt that we're being isolated and segregated by the information distribution network? Okay, let's push on.
Defining the Roles: Information Brokers
There are three well-defined roles to play in the information distribution network. I advocate for a fourth. The established three roles are brokers, dealers, and pawns. I advocate for content creators to band together as Pirate Authors in pirate crews. But for this post, we'll stick with understanding the brokers.
Information Brokers: These are the organizations (typically large corporations) at the top of the power structure. The most powerful brokers today are Google, Facebook, ATT, and Amazon. The brokers own the infrastructure that make the trades possible. They are profit-driven entities who tend to flow toward profit opportunities like water flows downhill. They are more amoral than immoral.
The large brokers are also constantly at war with each other over controlling access to new possible forms of information and data. Sometimes these battles play out more visibly, such as Google's recent attempts to improve their own commerce solution rather than sending their searches to Amazon for the final purchase.
The digital revolution has opened up a new frontier of valuable digital property. Similar to the Homestead Act of 1862, or the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1893, there is a sense of romanticism, greed, and entitlement over property that isn't exactly "free and clear." The frontier lands were host to plenty of residents who unfortunately for them didn't share the same concept of ownership as the pioneers.
Welcome to the digital frontier (not the desert of the real).
The digital frontier consists of our personal data, our intellectual property, and digital records and facsimiles created from our physical assets. This frontier is so new that ownership over these things is sketchy at best. Like the First Peoples of North America, the current residents of the digital frontier don't share the same concept of digital property ownership as the information brokers do. In lies the opportunity for the brokers. (This stuff really is strikingly reminiscent of Fishburne explaining the Matrix.)
Here is a recent development in the digital frontier that will serve as an adequately creepy example of why we should restructure the way we think about our digital information before it's too late. Most of you have probably seen advertisements for some sort of video doorbell. Amazon has acquired the Ring video doorbell and has begun promoting it pretty heavily. They've actually teamed up with police departments to promote the implementation of the technology as a method to fight crime.
On the surface, this seems like a great way to use technology to keep us safer. But who will own the video recorded by video doorbells? Currently, if you opt to share data with the police, they can use that data for any purpose they choose (not just the case in question), keep that data forever, and share that data with other government agencies. What will Amazon ultimately decide to do with the data? And how many times will they change the terms of service without you noticing?
The possibilities are endless. How valuable would it be to have an extensive facial recognition database? I can think of several uses for information based on the pedestrian and auto-traffic passing in front of my home. Who should own this information? And why shouldn't I have the option to be compensated for its usefulness? This is just one example of the massive opportunities that brokers are driven by.
Brokers are smart and they see the big picture. Outright ownership of the data of the digital frontier is difficult, time-consuming, expensive, and likely to be legally problematic down the road. And in the case of some intellectual property, laws already exist.
Chokepoints are critical for brokers.
Brokers look for chokepoints to control. Chokepoints are the equivalent of strategic assets such as fresh-water springs, river fords, safe harbors, and the narrow passageway defended by Leonidas and the 300 Spartans in the film 300. Control a digital chokepoint, and you can set your price for access to the asset on the other side. The need to preserve these digital chokepoints is the fundamental reason why Net Neutrality was revoked and is still under assault from large information brokers who have plenty of money to lobby Congress. But that's a post for another day.
Each of the large brokers has locked down at least one major chokepoint, and they leverage that chokepoint to gain others or to expand current ones.
Amazon is where we go to buy things, including my precious CBD oil. Facebook is where we go to share things, like photos of over-sized urban trucks parked across three spaces!!! Google is where we go to find things, like hybrid vehicle support groups. ATT is how we access the internet. (Now why won't this support group page open?...)
Uhhh, think about that last one for a minute. Which company controls your access to the internet? That's a key chokepoint. What happens if that company decides to bludgeon a competitor by slowing down access to their competitor's content? or by removing shortcuts from its dashboard? Or dropping access to certain content altogether? This is happening right now with Direct TV (ATT).
Where do we go from here?
Anyway, those are the brokers. There is no escaping them. We need to be aware of how they operate, and we need to be aware of the digital frontier they are attempting to control. By being educated on the matter, we can push back when the brokers attempt to make digital land grabs. By educating ourselves and others we can reduce the societal impacts or the "us" vs. "them" impacts of the fear-mongering that the brokers enable.
This leads us into the discussion about the information dealers. We'll address them in next week's post! There is a sort of bright side to all of this, but we've gotta go deeper in before we come out the other side. Endurance. Endurance, I say!