“It’s a fucking unreliable, lying, megalomaniac, hypocritical and privacy-invading blue site that keeps us coming back for more,” said Dutch comedian Arjen Lubach about Facebook in the satirical news show Zondag Met Lubach, in April of this year. So he asked his audience if we really wished to place our fate in the hands of a company that influential. He himself had contemplated the subject for a long time, but in the end, he had drawn an obvious conclusion: “We need to stop using that site.”
The Cambridge Analytica scandal, the voters’ verdict of ‘no’ in the referendum on the Intelligence and Security Services Act (a.k.a. the ‘Dragnet Act’), a record fine imposed on Google, the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation, Lubach’s much-applauded ‘Bye Bye Facebook’ action – they were just a few of the (increasingly vehement) criticisms levelled at modern technology this year. Was 2018 the year in which civil rights emerged victorious over unbridled technological optimism? Will the Frightful Five – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft – start feeling the pinch? Or will resistance prove futile (Lubach did not get many people to leave Facebook) and will the noose continue to tighten in the upcoming year?
“We are increasingly realising that we’ve created something we are barely able to control any longer”, says Jos de Mul, Professor of Philosophical anthropology, about the ever-growing amount of technology in our daily lives. “If you wish to function properly in today’s society, you can’t do without it. And we are increasingly seeing how companies utilise the addictiveness of smartphones and social media to abuse our data, the only goal being to earn money.”
De Mul is considered one of the country’s foremost thinkers on the subject of technology and the role it plays in our daily lives. In his book De domesticatie van het noodlot. De wedergeboorte van de tragedie uit de geest van de technologie (published in 2006) [Destiny Domesticated: The Rebirth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Technology, published in English in 2014] he wrote that every culture has its own way of dealing with fate (illness, loss, death). The Greek tragic heroes faced ineluctable suffering with their heads held high. To them, dying in a blaze of glory was better than running from one’s fate. Christianity came up with a different recipe: trust in God and everything will turn out fine in the end (after all, you will be profoundly happy and united with your loved ones in the sweet hereafter).
In the modern period, which commenced around the 16th century, we started believing that technology – in the broadest sense of the word – might actually help us stave off fate and take our destiny in our own hands. We have benefitted enormously from that, says De Mul. “Just think – in many respects, the average person now lives a much more comfortable life than kings did in the Middle Ages. However, what we did not take into account is that while technology does solve certain problems, it also generates new problems. When we learned how to combat malaria, overpopulation suddenly caused a tremendous famine. Fertiliser allowed us to produce more food, but it also resulted in our destroying our ecology.”
De Mul views our tragic relationship with smartphones, social media and the Internet in the same light. He says we are slowly losing our conviction that a technological solution can be found to any problem, no matter how complex (which is more or less the foundation on which Silicon Valley was built). “We are beginning to realise that technology not only helps us control fate, but at the same time is our fate. Social media capitalise on our desire to feel connected to others. But, to quote Helmuth Plessner, human beings are characterised by a constitutive homelessness. We will never merge completely with another person.” So we stare at our screens in vain, on the train, during a meeting, even while lying in bed next to the person we love. And we are beginning to realise that while these screens may administer us some much-needed hits of dopamine, they will never make us better human beings. Or, as De Mul puts it: “Particularly now that we’re discovering that these developers in Silicon Valley actually raise their own children without those iPads.”
Daniël Trottier, who conducts research on digital vigilantism, agrees that something changed in 2018. “We had been concerned about privacy for a while, but those concerns were about the process, about the abstract phenomenon of privacy. Last year we got increasingly concerned about the outcomes of that process: echo chambers, fake news, the undermining of democratic processes.”
But he is not sure that this increased awareness is resulting in actual action being undertaken. “The same people who are critical of Facebook – and who often, ironically enough, voice their criticisms on Facebook – will receive a Google Home for Christmas this year, or a 23andMe kit.”
An argument frequently raised is that there is no alternative. You can’t not use Microsoft or Apple at work or in your studies. Freelancers need LinkedIn or Instagram for work purposes, and we all need WhatsApp to socialise. And let’s not even discuss the information with which Google provides you all day long, like a good digital butler. Sure, you can stop using modern technology. But even though just a few years ago, you were pretty cool when you embarked on a digital detox featuring a retro Nokia 3210, that same action now constitutes social and professional suicide. That is, if you are able to get away from online services in the first place. “It’s very hard to be an activist in actual practice,” says Trottier.
Last year, the European Union took a first serious step towards protecting EU citizens’ data from the increasingly far-reaching tentacles of major cross-border technology companies. On 24 May, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect, after many years’ worth of negotiations. Will the Regulation save us, though?
“I was trained to view things from an economist’s perspective,” says Bernold Nieuwesteeg, a specialist in the law and economics of cyber security. “The winner takes it all on the Internet. The economies of scale are tremendous, and the marginal cost – the costs incurred by producing one additional product – are practically nil. So whichever party has the deepest coffers will end up cannibalising the others. And we all know that monopolies are not in a society’s best interests. We could talk about all the disadvantages of the GDPR for hours. We could say it’s not all that enforceable, or that it is exclusively about compliance. But the thing is, we got to a point where we had to do something.”
‘In a way we are already half cyborg, only we’re still operated by those primitive screens.’
In his work, Nieuwesteeg focuses on the pros and cons of cyber security measures. He analyses whether laws do what they say they do, and at what cost (among other things, he firmly opposed last year’s proposed Intelligence and Security Services Act). “Basically, we have two options,” he says. “The first is continuing down the road we’re on. We will put our fate completely in the hands of increasing technological capitalism. In a way we are already half cyborg, only we’re still operated by those primitive screens. Our interactions with technology will become smarter and smarter, and companies will become even more powerful. Our other option, which is one Europe traditionally excels at, is to slow down that process a little. There are more things in life than maximising absolutely everything down to the smallest detail. We should be asking ourselves how to equip people for life in the digital era and to what extent we will allow smartphones to rule our lives.”
No impending revolution
Nieuwesteeg has noticed that his students are increasingly aware of the dangers inherent in technology. Admittedly, it’s a low level of awareness, but it’s a start. For his part, Daniël Trottier, too, thinks the current debate will result in increasing ‘technological literacy’. However, he does immediately qualify that statement. “There will not be a revolution. Our awareness of what companies do with our data will probably morph into cynicism. The major tech companies will do everything in their power to maintain and strengthen their positions. I’d be absolutely amazed if the dominance of the Big Five were challenged in the next twelve months.”
De Mul believes we Westerners continue to be susceptible to the utopian idea that technology will definitely improve our lives. “We now even have apps whose sole function is to prevent us from accessing any apps for a few hours per day.” However, he predicts that the tragic irony of technology will make itself felt increasingly often. “Perhaps we will be the first species to create its own evolutionary successors.”