‘Big Tech’-ville: Corporate domination in the 21st century

This is the text of my spring 2021 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. The text has been slightly extended and links added.

‘Big Tech’ – the data-based platforms which control vast swathes of our online lives – has swallowed whole the grand gesture that the free gift of the internet was intended to be.

Such companies as Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon, and increasingly Netflix, are generating vast amounts of data about what we do online, with whom, and why. Capturing, analysing and then selling information based on the data trails we leave behind us as we go about our lives online is one thing; but it is their ability to analyse and aggregate that individual data which is key to the financial success of their model.

Now, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, on whose information management system the world wide web is based – and who tweeted ‘This is for everyone’ from the stage of the London Olympics in 2012 – has got on board with a start-up called Inrupt. Inrupt’s aim is to re-establish individual ownership of our data, thereby putting the web back under individual control and killing the data surveillance model on which the platforms are based.

Pods

The concept that Inrupt is seeking to develop is ‘pods’ – personal online data stores – effectively a vault for our own data to which we alone hold the keys. We could give big tech companies the right to access that data to sell us services but, critically, they would not have the right to extract it or sell it on.

Whether Inrupt will be successful is an open question. But undermining established models based on what we give away will not be easy because it means confronting powerful interests. We ourselves have invested a lot of time and effort in building profiles in the process of which we have been careless about the value of our data. And our own data has little value unless and until it is aggregated.

If these are already big questions, there are even bigger ones about how such companies are coming to dominate our lives. The US state of Nevada is developing legislation for ‘Innovation Zones’, where tech companies would be allowed the right to impose taxes, create schools and courts, and deliver government services in return for their investment. (Freeports – cited as a benefit of Brexit – and the first bids for which closed in early February, might well end up working in a similar way.)

Amazon has set up a pop-up Covid-19 vaccination hub in its Seattle headquarters, with the aim of offering vaccinations to 2,000 local residents on the first day.

And the same company is to spend $2bn on building affordable new homes for its workers in the three US cities where its major employment hubs are located.

State failure

Amazon’s are not the altruistic gestures a first glance provides: few of its own staff are likely to be among vaccine priority groups; while its major employment hubs have been responsible for inflating local land prices as workers have arrived.

We have seen these things before, with philanthropists making money from industry and then using it to build homes and schools for workers. Some turned out better than others: the New Lanark founded by utopian socialist and co-operative movement pioneer Robert Owen, for instance.

That we seem to be returning to such a model is, nevertheless, a damning indictment of state failure and, indeed, of state capture by big tech. That Google’s workers are coming together to unionise is a welcome sign of a fightback at that level. All of us choosing to regain control of our data is a next, vital, step in building the fight against a return to pre-welfare state capitalism.

News flash: calm weather in Uist

Uist fishing boats in rare dialogue about the wind direction

We don’t usually have to wonder too much about the wind direction – the Dark Island turbine and the fishing boats, when in the bay, give us all that without us even having to step outside. Consequently it’s a rare day when the wind is so still that the boats point in different directions (even if the above photo, taken yesterday afternoon, was taken just about an hour after low tide with the boats being still somewhat stuck in the sand). Today, again, there’s barely a breath of wind.

To tell the truth, the weather has been extremely poor in June, with cold grey skies, plenty of rain and strong winds for much of the month until its last few days: a clutch of tourists arrived at our door on Wednesday last week, in search of a neighbour’s B&B, clad in shorts and light summer jackets; a few hours later they were spotted on the way back from the beach in heavier coats, long trousers and holding to each other for warmth. Our fisher folk have indeed rarely ventured out – not so much the weather in June itself as the lingering effects of our long, cold winter on the size of the shellfish, typically lobsters, that they usually catch: shellfish are simply too small to warrant the effort, and the dangers, of going out and bringing them ashore.

I alluded to this below in the late return of the corncrakes, given the lack of cover provided by the nettles and yellow flag iris – one male was still calling yesterday afternoon, somewhat forlornly, although most females will be on a second brood by now so there’s little for the males to make much of a song about. There is now, at least, plenty of cover for them on the land: June’s rains have seen the nettles and the iris spring to life and it’s likely that their nests – the second ones – will have remained well hidden. Worse effects seem to be on the birds which can be predated upon and whose nests are more in the open: there is so little seafood to go around that the gulls – not so much the ravens this year, which are remarkable absent from our headland – have turned to the bird populations instead, and with catastrophic effects: a pair of shelduck popped up one day last week with a brood of 8-10 ducklings but I caught sight of a pair, probably the parents, on Saturday evening, just drifting on the tide, distanced but sorrowfully together, and entirely duckling-less, before taking off together toward the setting sun. There is no eider nursery that I’ve seen: parent birds, now moulting and looking in pretty poor condition, but entirely duckling-free. And a lapwing nest on a neighbouring croft was taken by gulls over two days last week: on the first day the parents were mostly successful in driving the gulls off but a determined one returned to polish off what was likely to be a solitary remaining chick the following day. Again, the parents – after making a quick, but vain, attempt at defence, swooping fast from the air at the gull(s) on the ground – flew high up, parted and then away separately into the skies.

The fishing season will pick up, even if the autumn gales ensure that it finishes more or less at the same time as usual, leaving (probably) a much truncated season behind; but it is too late for those breeding birds whose clutches are solitary and whose breeding window, in many cases, is brief enough. Despite the effects of our own activity, nature is largely balanced and self-regulating: a poor season one year is still likely to be followed by a good one the next. In the long-term, however, a repetition of long cold winters as a result of climate change will spell trouble: as resistant to long-term change as we humans can be, we tend nevertheless to greater adaptability in the short-term in the face of the havoc we are causing. There will be other jobs on the crofts, with crofters tending each to have three or four jobs anyway. But, while the survival urge will prompt its own changes in response among wildlife populations, unless they are also able to do so in the same short time frame, devastation will be the result. This tension between long-term and short-term adaptability, between humans and wildlife, lies at the crux of the problems being wrought by climate change.

Book Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

It’s never a bad time to read a book- and it’s never a bad time to read this book. Arising out of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s 2014 blog post of the same title, and published originally in 2017 (this (expanded) edition in 2018), it received a second life rising to the top of best-selling book charts this time in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. In 2021, it was certainly interesting to be reading it in the aftermath of the backdrop of the government’s Sewell Report, and when England footballers continue (with official support) to take the knee in solidarity with those experiencing racism; and to be writing it when an England cricketer is – rightly, pace today’s political pronunciations – suspended pending an investigation into racist (and sexist) tweets written a while ago, when he might well have been in a different place but while an adult and certainly old enough to vote, and when the dance group Diversity have just picked up a BAFTA for a routine inspired by #BlackLivesMatter.

In 2021 as in each of those earlier years in this book’s life. And in the many decades and centuries before it, too. This is a recurring theme.

Make no mistake: Eddo-Lodge’s title is not an attempt to shut down conversation or to be racist in itself and neither is it an attempt at justifying isolation. As Eddo-Lodge herself points out early on, she has actually done little else but talk to white people about race since the publication of her book while ‘Aftermath’, a brief addendum added to cover events around the time of publication, and since, is not without hope that the conversation can be – and indeed is being – changed. The entire purpose of the book is to have that conversation about race.

It’s particularly interesting to be reviewing the book in the prism of current events in sport. Sportsmen and women are predominantly young people, some better placed than others to be at the forefront of a national debate but all blameless, albeit highly visible, players in it. Eddo-Lodge’s approach and style of writing is very much to see things in ‘black and white’; there are some grey areas in this debate but very few and none of them at the forefront of it. You are either booing the players (from your own team) or generally feeling uncomfortable about their actions in taking the knee; or else you are applauding them in solidarity with their own efforts to show solidarity with others. We are all on one side or the other in this and, I suspect, a lot can be understood about where we stand on the issues raised generally by race identity by where we stand on the players’ actions on the football field (and also their suspension from the cricket field).

Eddo-Lodge’s essential starting point is that (at least in the Global North, and there may be some caveats which need to be inserted in that respect), there is a link between skin colour and privilege and that, where you are white, you start off with an in-built advantage which few white people ever actually recognise or are forced to confront. For people of colour, in contrast, doing so is a regular, daily occurrence. Setting out the facts about the disadvantage and the prejudice leads Eddo-Lodge to her preferred theory of structural racism in which such disadvantage is a part of the system; and this is of course the issue which is the dividing point. For too many people, racism is in the face, and in the fists and boots, of hard core far-right fascist sympathisers without recognising that this is the easy bit – that the more uncomfortable truths lie in the systemic issues which disadvantage people and which moderates are less likely to see as actionable. A lengthy quote from Dr. Martin Luther King – no militant, he – proves the point (p. 101). Objects like bananas and darts, as reported by Mark Walters after signing for Rangers in 1987, being thrown is something that will not have been experienced by white footballers in this country on the grounds solely of their skin colour. That they are no longer experienced by black players represents progress (of sorts) – but it is not a sign that equality has been reached: not the least, as Walters’s insightful, well-put together, touching and educational programme underlines, because black people were being written out of histories long before the abuse started (and because that abuse is still being levelled, now verbally, at black players). Particularly in one interview towards the end (and with full credit to Graeme Souness), Walters’s film (for BBC Scotland) brilliantly makes Eddo-Lodge’s case about white privilege. Furthermore the desire not to see racism other than in the identity of a shaven-haired street-fighting thug spewing abusive language means refusing to see the wider battles which are having to be fought and which are occasioned by a white-dominant world view in which toleration and ‘colour blindness’ imply no presence of disadvantage as long as people passively ‘know their place’ and do not challenge too strongly.

In elaborating her theme, she moves through the modern histories of black people in Britain and their experiences at the hands of organisations meant to serve the community through to privilege, the ‘fear of a black planet’ and which touches on ‘Great Replacement Theory’, conservatism within the white feminist movement and the links between race and class which also feature in the Sewell Report and which led those authors to a disappointingly different analysis and set of conclusions. Institutional – or structural – racism does exist. In so doing she makes some particularly interesting points around the need for better education on British history (not, for example, seeing civil rights uniquely through an American lens), since the history of black people in the UK did not start with the Windrush but stems from colonialism, and she raises the fundamental question of why white people don’t recognise that they have a racial identity – a ground which the usual suspects from the commentariat are now, inevitably, trying to dominate.

Sometimes Eddo-Lodge’s examples are episodic, even anecdotal, in character which lends a rather personal, blog-style atmosphere to the work, and the interview with Nick Griffin is shallow and rather poorly-judged – but the facts are always on her side. Ultimately, this is an approachable and highly readable account which hits its targets, uncovering as it does not only the extent of the prejudice which exists against people of colour, which may be evident to people who have been paying any sort of attention, but, more importantly, to the unifying force which lies behind them. It may be light on action, but that is not the purpose of the book which is to change the conversation and that is a difficult enough thing to do when, as other footballers have also recently pointed out, there are many competing things in our lives which distract us from having the hard conversations that we need to have. The goal of equality is, it seems, a long-term one and it will not be won as a result of winning a single game and certainly not from scoring a single goal within a single game. The issues remain complex – Diversity’s award was won on the strength of a public vote, while the sound of booing of players taking the knee has, this last week, been drowned out by applause. Here, there are some good signs and more of the applause, please, at Euro2020. Nevertheless that goal does come a little closer each time an open, respectful conversation, which proceeds honestly from the inequality that one side experiences by virtue of their skin colour, is had. If you haven’t yet had that conversation – Eddo-Lodge is a good person with whom to start, even vicariously.