Columnist and academic John Naughton could hardly have chosen a better day on which to do a contemporary take on Martin Luther and post 95 theses online about the power of the technology industry.
In a nod to the late social critic Neil Postman, Naughton posed his challenge on Tuesday to what he called the Church of Technopoly.
"We are all members of the Church of Technopoly, and what we worship is digital technology," he wrote in the Guardian.
“It is nowhere and yet it’s everywhere. It knows everything about us – our movements, our thoughts, our desires, our fears, our secrets, who our friends are, our financial status, even how well we sleep at night. We tell it things that we would not whisper to another human being. It shapes our politics, stokes our appetites, loosens our tongues, heightens our moral panics, keeps us entertained (and therefore passive).”
Yes, Tuesday, October 31st, was the 500th anniversary of the day Luther hammered his own revolutionary theses on to that Wittenberg church door.
But it was also the day lawyers from Google, Facebook and Twitter were grilled ruthlessly by US senators, both Republicans and Democrats, as the legal phalanx appeared in a hearing before the senate judiciary committee's powerful crime and terrorism subcommittee.
The hearing strikingly highlighted so many of the hard questions Naughton throws out in his theses, part of an ongoing project in which each thesis is to be linked to further exploration of the issue presented, and suggestions for further reading. As of Wednesday, 20 were hyperlinked in this way.
The first thesis sets the broad stage for the project: “Digital technology is significantly different from other technologies” (and do start there). The 95th is: “We should be aiming for Intelligence Augmentation (IA), not Artificial Intelligence (AI).”
The first 20 include plenty to provoke, stimulate and surprise. “Surveillance is the business model of the Internet” (number 10), “Think of Google and Facebook as if they were ExxonMobil and Glencore” (number 11), “The free market was always an illusion. In Cyberspace it’s a fraud” (number 18), “Winners take all in digital markets” (number 9).
Short and sharp, each merits a read. But let’s look at his expansion on number 19: “The technical is political.”
Naughton writes: “The idea that the tech industry exists, somehow, ‘outside’ of society was always misconceived, even when the industry was in its infancy… But in an era where it’s clear that Google and Facebook have, unintentionally or otherwise, been influencing democratic politics and elections, it is positively delusional. We have reached the point where almost every ‘technological’ issue posed by the five giant tech companies is also a political problem requiring political and possibly legislative responses.”
Over to the congressional subcommittee, which was busy unintentionally or otherwise illuminating the importance of Naughton's first 20 theses. Members wanted to know more about how Russians managed to spread mistruths via these platforms before and after the US presidential election last year. How had they managed to run advertisements for the US election on Facebook, post misleading videos on YouTube, and create thousands of fake accounts on Twitter?
How could these tech giants have failed to notice what was happening?
As Democratic senator Al Franken of Minnesota fumed: "How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them in the personal connections with its user, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads, paid for in rubles, were coming from Russia?"
The triad of lawyers attempted, often without success, to undulate around such questions (“My goal is for you to think through this stuff a little bit better,” Franken growled in response).
What also needs to be thought through a little better by us all, are the points Naughton’s theses make. The existence of those companies, their business models, the way anyone can run finely targeted ads cheaply (Facebook acknowledged that some 129 million Americans may have seen the Russian ads, bought for less than the cost of a one minute TV ad), the (at least, attempted, very public) manipulation of a presidential election?
All hail “Surveillance is the business model of the Internet” (number 10), “Think of Google and Facebook as if they were ExxonMobil and Glencore” (number 11), “The free market was always an illusion. In Cyberspace it’s a fraud” (number 18), “Winners take all in digital markets” (number 9), “Digital technology is significantly different from other technologies” (number 1),“The technical is political” (number 19).
And that’s just a start.
No matter our affection for, frustration with, or daily immersion in technology – no, because of it – we all need to wake up to these worrying, world-shaping, timely and too often, invisible issues.
Naughton makes them visible. Read the theses.