The speech whose text we here publish, was delivered by Anno Hellenbroich at the Foro de Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2014. The Foro took place in the Mexican city of Guadalajara (Jalisco) in the days of October 20-23, and brought together representatives from different Latin American countries as well as from Europe. The Forum was organized by the Mexican Trade Union “Fondación revolucionaria de Obrerors y Campesinos del estado de Jalisco” (CROC), the Brazilian Trade Union organization CSB (Central de Sindacatos de Brazil), the Mexican Movimiento de Solidaridad Iberoamericano (MSIa) as well as the Brazilian Publishing House “Capax Dei Editora Ltd”. Focused on the theme “An alliance of Nation States, Social Justice and the Common Good”, the conference discussed about the principles of “a new just international order”, which looks at “politics as a higher form of caritas (love)”. This expression, which was coined by Pope Francis during his 2013 trip to Brazil, inspired the conference like a Leitmotif. Approximately 500 participants (among them many young people) attended its proceedings, which included a concert of German Lieder and Mexican songs by the tenor, m° Alfredo Mendoza.
by Anno Hellenbroich
I deliberately chose, as title for this presentation in which I will speak about the chimera of freedom in the digital age, the title of a famous book in the 60s: “Beyond the Chains of Illusion. My Encounter with Marx and Freud” by Erich Fromm. The book was published in 1962 and was widely read by the student generation of that time. It expressed a growing concern among many intellectuals, including – aside Erich Fromm – also Albert Einstein and the famous physician, theologian and musician Albert Schweitzer. They all were concerned about the threat of a possible nuclear war, which is what motivated Fromm to write his book. This becomes evident in the “Credo” which Fromm publishes in his book. It includes his commitment to humanism and his unconditional desire for peace. The German sociologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who in 1933 emigrated in the U.S., from 1950 to 1974 lived and taught in Mexico, by the way.
I mention Fromm not because of his theses about Freud and Marx, but because of the general debate which centers on the so called “great freedom of the internet”: the “chains of illusion” in our days. What is more and more put into question, is how large IT companies and States are collecting meticulously our private data, by using at the same time the data of “users” in order to “monetize” them to make money out of them. This is done according to the unspoken slogan of Google, “to make the life of users more comfortable”. “Freedom of communication”, an open culture in a world of 7 billion people, in my opinion would be quite different than what Google & Co really do while compiling our data (often not known to us) and useing them in order to bombard us with advertisement which is tailored to our personal profile.
- The Snowden-shock
The shock waves which were produced by the “Snowden Files” (Glenn Greenwald’s and Luke Harding’s book and published articles in the Guardian since the beginning of 2013) are still reverberating. The NSA, the largest American intelligence agency which is engaged in the world-wide monitoring of electronic communications, along with the British partner service, have collected metadata of e-mails and telephone calls from millions of people outside and inside the USA. The reason they give is: security, counter-terrorism, etc. In Germany, there was an outcry across all parties, when it was revealed that also the mobile phone of German Chancellor Merkel was tapped; similar to the reaction in Brazil, after it was revealed that President Dilma Rousseff’s communication had also been listened into.
The reaction by Mrs. Merkel: “To spy on friends, this doesn’t work” seemed to draw a clear line against the imperial posturing of the American intelligence agencies. However, after a huge media hype about this “outrageous spying” which led to a breach of confidence in the German / American relations, nothing more really has happened. The German debate about espionage and all that which the Intelligence agencies are doing was – in my opinion – filled with a lot of hypocrisy: because – despite all the immense technical upgrade and possibilities for surveillance – the behavior of States which want to spy on the enemy (“the second oldest profession in the world”), even if it is a friendly state, is always “politically” motivated; sometimes it is aimed at getting economic advantages, sometimes it is more determined by competition for power. Historically, this can be studied since the formation of nations.
In Germany, this Snowden shock has sparked a fierce debate on the one side about the limits which the State faces in its monitoring effort; on the other side it has mainly sparked a discussions about the possibilities and limits of the new search engines in the digital world, the social-networks and the profiling capabilities of the world’s leading IT companies, not only of certain governments.
What Snowden revealed to the public about the search programs of the NSA, made clear what opportunities exist today to create, out of billions of data, personal profiles for example “being able to recognize or suspect a possible assassin in a train station”. But we must say that the supposed successes of the US in mass surveillance have been very poor. The main concern of the increasingly fierce debate this has triggered is that this constitutes a violation of the fundamental rights of the citizen, not to mention the killings of individuals by guided missile weapons on the basis of such information.
The central aim of the NSA software called PRISM, for example, is the analysis of data, which the NSA obtains from large U.S. Internet companies, on the basis of cooperation treaties which the US Intelligence has concluded with these companies – or imposed on them. As it is documented, this includes all the big names of the U.S. Internet industry, such as: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple. According to a top secret document revealed by Snowden, the NSA and the FBI had gained access to the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies. This way the Intelligence agencies could use audio and video chats, photos, e-mails, documents and metadata, as the Washington Post reported on June 6, 2013. Just recently it was reported that the U.S. court FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) which convenes secretly, imposed a fine of $ 250,000 per day on Yahoo, if Yahoo does not release the data to the NSA.
When we talk about monitoring, we first think about the content: about phone calls that are tapped and recorded, about letters which are copied, copies of faxes or e-mails…
More important is however today the evaluation of the so-called meta-data. This term describes all the data of digital communication – ith the exception of the content. Meta-data include in particular the connection data of the telecommunications (who, with whom, when, and where somebody is doing the phone call), the location data from mobile devices, the addresses of websites which are being looked for. Meta-data are incurred for each electronic interaction. Without them, there would be no digital mobile network and no Internet. Hence the meta-data also from the perspective of the surveillance agencies have invaluable potential:
-You can be automatically detected and evaluated,
– The data volume is not nearly as large as that of the content data,
– On the basis of these data, comprehensive relationship and behavior profiles are derived.
One of the most famous science fiction novels is George Orwell’s “1984” which got published 65 years ago, shortly after the end of World War II. The book describes the oppressive feeling caused by total surveillance and he writes about the “newspeak” and “doublethink” of the totalitarian State. At the beginning of the book a monitor (very similar to today’s notebooks-monitors or iPhones) is described:
“The television screen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plate commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire, was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time, but at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live –did live, from habit that became instinct- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
This is how Orwell with his main protagonist Winston introduced the totalitarian surveillance State of “Big Brother is watching you”.
But the special thing about the commercial internet giants Google, Facebook & Co is that we ourselves voluntarily offer our personality profile, our “ego in digital form” without being aware of it, or because we believe that it doesn’t really matter what data are stored about us. At first, the personal benefit or the wish to play a computer game seems to be bigger than the awareness of the dangers. But over time, “my digital shadow” begins to control me more and more and there is the danger that my ego is more and more inadvertantly steered by “this shadow” of my Internet activities. Google & Co are the new hidden persuaders. What do we really know about them?
- Google, Facebook and Co
One of the leading critics of Google & Co is the American professor emeritus Shoshana Zuboff. In a speech which she recently gave in Potsdam (Germany), under the title “A Digital declaration: Against the surveillance capitalism of big Data” she warned that the data and records of Google network users are being “monetized” by the private industry. She calls it “surveillance capitalism” which includes the concept of “data mining”. What she analyzes is how huge data sets – the Big Data – are made available and commercially used.
Most users do not even have the slightest idea of what amount of data has been collected in the recent years. As Zuboff describes: “There are many sources from which these new flows are generated: sensors, surveillance cameras, phones, satellites, street views, corporate and government databases (from banks, credit card, credit rating, and telecom companies) are just a few. (…) The most significant component is what some call ‘data exhaust.’ This is user-generated data, harvested from the haphazard ephemera of everyday life, especially the tiniest details of our online engagements-captured, datafied (translated into machine-readable code), abstracted, aggregated, packaged, sold, and analyzed. This includes everything from Facebook likes and Google searches to tweets, emails, texts, photos, songs, and videos, location and movement, purchases, every click, misspelled words, every page view, and more.”
As Zuboff emphasizes, the largest and most successful ‘big data’ company is “Google, because it is the most visited website and therefore has the largest data exhaust. AdWords, which is Google’s algorithmic method for targeting online advertising, gets its edge from access to the most data exhaust.” She underlined that aside Google also Yahoo and Facebook do the same.
On the strength of these capabilities, Google’s ad revenues were $ 21 billion in 2008 and increased to over $50 billion in 2013. By February 2014, Google’s $400 billion dollar market value had edged out Exxon for the second rank in market capitalization.
This “international hype” is sometimes compared with the gold rush fever of the past century and a behavior “like in the Wild West”.
According to Professor Zuboff “Big Data is a big euphemism, as Orwell once observed, euphemisms are used in politics, war, and business ‘to make lies sound truthful and murder respectful’. The ugly truth is that much of ‘big data’ is plucked from our lives without knowledge or informed consent.”
Google defends the data in possession which yield profit, as the company’s property. However this is what is put into question by the critics, since the data are our private data. That is why currently there is such an intense fight with the European Commission concerning the “right to be forgotten”, the copyrights and other privacy rights.
At a recent conference dedicated to the future of the Internet, German Interior Minister De Maizière emphasized very strongly that “the State … doesn’t have more rights nor less in the digital world than it has in the analogue space.” At the same conference one speaker emphasized that: “Man is not only a data supplier”.
- The dangers of “social physics” – the new Googlonia
But those scientists who collaborate with Google go even much further in their future planning of the “Brave New World” (“Brave New World” is the title of the famous book published by Aldous Huxley in 1932), the new “Googlonia”, which is especially sharply formulated by another critic of digitalization, Evgeny Morozov. As he has demonstrated in several occasions, there are some scientists and companies who want to persuade us, that all problems of the world can be solved with information. As Morozow put in the headline of one essay (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 29, 2014): “Like clueless guinea pigs: IT bosses tell us that all our problems can be solved by collecting information. The more you give, the more you get. But then there is only ‘social physics’ instead of politics left”.
Morozov makes reference to the work of a professor at the MIT Media Lab, Alex Pentland – he is also an advisor for the Davos Forum and claims to be among the 7 most powerful data scientists of the world) – who in his book “Social Physics” outlines some “chimerical” ideas.
In the context of social physics I made a little experiment with the Google search engine. I wanted to find out more about the culture of how a “search” is made in the Google search engine (which serves more than 80% of the global requests and thus has a monopoly on global searches). I typed in some English words and within less than 1 second I got the following number of references for each:
“People” – 2 billion references
“Love” – 1.5 billion (the Spanish word “amor” yielded 500 million)
“Sex” – 1.7 billion
all this was found via Google search engine a few days ago. It was a “cultural experiment” about the desires of the users at present. What becomes clear as well, is how you can make money with that.
Morozov described in a speech the limits of social physics, which Alex Pentland presented in his book on the basis of social experiments. “Systems based on social physics work because they know us: not just our daily movements and communication patterns but also our friends and the nature of our relationships. Social physics has mind-boggling implications. With enough data mining, one can find the right neighbors to convince us to cut energy consumption, the right friends to tell us not to eat junk food, the right colleagues to remind us not to slack off during our work hours. It’s all about finding the right people at the right time and getting them to send the right messages.”
According to Morozov “the social democracy will be undermined by the policy of the online companies. Values will be eliminated and ideals wiped out. People are more than just useful customers. What we are seeing is the triumph of pure capitalism. We have to react to this with the establishment of new democratic institutions.” One way to democratize, according to Morozov, is to take away from the online giants the ownership of the data. “The data must belong to others than the corporations.” Or they have to pay us for our data they make money with, I add.
I don’t want to be misunderstood: of course I do see that there are great benefits of a wise policy of digitization in all those areas which have a global productive importance. But as the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (17th century), the inventor of the binary system, i.e. of a machine readable code, which became the basis for today’s digital world, emphasized again and again: what really counts is the identity of man, the inventiveness of man who must be seen as a microcosm in the mirror of the macrocosm, which is the basis of every human civilized effort. This should serve as standard for the sSate and society concerning the question how to deal with the “new digital world.”
The last two thousand years have been characterized by the struggle between violence and tolerance in the development of our civilization. Leibniz spoke of the “best of all possible worlds, the harmonious parallel possible worlds”. This philosophical concept of harmony of “possible worlds” can today serve as the basis for the opportunities which are offered by digitalization and the Internet as communication as well as the “Internet of things”, to shape our future.
This not only applies for the gigantic access to knowledge, which so far has never been available for mankind, but this also applies for education, research, work and production processes as well as the sciences. But a human society needs more than “available information” and “entertainment”. The old questions concerning the criteria for making decisions, whether good or evil, cannot be answered by billions of data. Every human being must have the possibility to live through such a cultural and moral development of self-perfection. Otherwise we turn into a cannibal society.
The rights of the individual must be protected; also with the help of technological innovations, such as encryption, the diversion of data via national power cables / server nodes and rights of our own data, including verifiable destruction, no matter from which sources they originate, must be respected. The giant IT companies will not take the lead, because they are not willing to cut voluntarily their business. But the superstition about the freedom of the “social networks” thru the Internet, which some of the apologists of the uncontrolled network defend, has collapsed, as I see it, after the Snowden shock.
The users of the Internet should liberate themselves from the “chains of illusion.”