(This article was originally published in the bdnews24.com on the 17th of August, 2017. Since then the roles of Breitbart (American far-right newspaper), Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica (a data firm in Cambridge, England) came under severe scrutiny in American presidential election campaign for Donald Trump in 2016. Although Facebook initially denied any responsibility for improper or inappropriate political role, but today the Facebook has, under enormous pressure, admitted inappropriate role and suspended Cambridge Analytica’s account with them.)
Victor Frankenstein’s creation of a human monster, known simply as Frankenstein, in the 19th century novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley may be a pure fiction, but there is an analogue to that in the modern-day world. However, that fictional monster had been made to disappear in the icy wilderness of the north; but the modern-day monster is firmly lodged in present-day technology and is going nowhere. This newly created monster is so powerful and ubiquitous that it threatens to take over the human mind, human soul, relegate human beings into pawns and control their lives. If God is viewed as an all-powerful, all knowledgeable, all embracing entity, then this is it; it is the de facto God.
What is this all-powerful, all knowledgeable entity that rules over human beings? It is, in fact, a human invention of ethereal dimensions. It exists in ethernet – something like fictitious ether which pervades the whole world, the whole universe, but nobody has actually found it or identified it; it exists in cyberspace, but nobody can nail it down to cyberspace; it exists somewhere up in the cloud, in the sky. Doesn’t it sound like a God of some sort? But there is a sharp distinction. It does not go into heaven and hell dimensions. It is quite happy controlling human minds, treating human beings as subjugated animals.
It is the world wide web, abbreviated as www, where information – documents, images, audio and video clips and links, etc. – can be accessed by internet by millions and billions of users worldwide. With the astounding progress in computer technology, where miniaturisation and speed of data processing have gone up exponentially higher year after year over the last decade or so, computers have become indispensable tools for human beings. This computer technology has produced wide varieties such as laptops, palmtops, mobile phones or cell phones and all other digital gadgets. All these gadgets are woven together in the internet so that people can do all sorts of hitherto unimaginable things.
Gone are the days when pen and paper were essential items for human beings. Whereas previously people needed to be literate to require pen and paper, now people can use this internet facility without much of a literate background. One can express one’s opinion, such as liking an idea by just clicking into the ‘like’ button. One can express one’s strongly held conviction in 140 characters in Twitter. One can upload images from mobile/cell phones straight into the internet and share them with friends, relations or a wider public right across the world. The opportunities (and pitfalls) are simply boundless.
When all of these processes and activities are put together, they can be described in modern-day terminology as ‘social media’. Social media are the computer based social networks for communicating, sharing and exchanging information between members of virtual communities round the world. There has been an unprecedented proliferation of various types of social media — Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr, Pinterest and many more — each vying for the customs of the general public offered completely free of charge. The more people use their platforms, criss-crossing messages across the world, the happier and richer the social media become. It is comically like an open house — come and gorge yourself to your heart’s content, given all free!
So, how do these apparently most generous and charitable organisations employing hundreds of people, if not thousands across the globe survive without charging users a single penny or a dime? That is the trick of the trade! That is where the Frankenstein simile comes in.
The Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who established the free network in the 1990s, had the stated purpose to connect people with each other, to empower them, to give them voice, to make them count. Other platform owners also expressed similar sentiments such that people might mistakenly think that they are modern-day angels. But there is nothing called a free lunch.
But these supposedly ‘charitable’ social media organisations are ‘data’ traders. They make you, me and everybody else come and exchange views using their facilities. People are free to talk about anything and everything on earth, as long as it is not racially motivated, terrorist related, brazenly threatening to others, etc. This restrictive clause effectively makes users liable for the propriety of information that is exchanged, not the platform owner. But the platform owner effectively owns the proprietary rights of data, although all of it has been in the public domain. The underlying reason is that the data had been recorded and stored in the owner’s machines and so the owner can do whatever he likes, as long as it does not violate the Data Protection Act 1998 in the UK or EU Data Protection Directive 1995 in the European Union.
When someone clicks ‘like’ on a certain item, when someone puts a small cryptic comment, when someone uploads an image, all these stray items can be put together and a comprehensive picture or profile of that person can be built. As an example, recently a reporter investigating Donald Trump’s use of psychographics in his presidential election campaign, went to see Cambridge Analytica in London, which devised the methodology of psychographics for a large section of the American population (over 50 million people). The head of Cambridge Analytica (CA) told him that by using totally innocuous data, which are all in the public domain, they can create a very good personal profile of a group of people or an individual through using their highly sophisticated algorithm. To show the validity of the CA algorithm, he said that he had produced a personal profile of the reporter himself – all from data in the public domain. He told him that the journalist was a history graduate from a specified university (he even told him his grade), his family background, his political affiliation, his religious adherence, his atheistic leaning, his foreign tours, his eating habits, his liking of French wines, Italian shoes, etc. The reporter was literally shocked to bits to see that his life was such an open book. The CA knows almost everything about him – his mind, his thinking, his affiliations, etc. And worst of all, he was totally unaware that he had himself given out so much information about himself!
The Cambridge Analytica had just collected all stray data and processed them. It is all done by electronic means on an industrial scale. Individual profiles can lead to psychographics and people with similar psychographics can be banded together for political, economic and social purposes. Once the CA had completed psychographics, the information was passed on to publicity and campaign groups and they literally targeted individuals with appropriate pitch, knowing very well their minds, their liking and disliking, their mode of thinking, etc.
These ‘data traders’ are literally sitting on gold mines. Each one of these supposedly ‘charitable’ social media organisations is worth billions, if not tens or hundreds of billions of dollars. Money literally comes falling down on them from the sky or spurts out of the ground.
They are the modern-day Gods – they know the hearts and minds of people, more than people know of themselves. With the knowledge of people’s minds, they can manipulate their behaviour, aspirations, lifestyles, etc., and that is where the power of these Gods lies.
However, I would like to call them Frankensteins. Human beings have created www and www has spawned data collection opportunities through various platforms. Cambridge Analytica is just putting souls into the bodies and thereby becoming Gods. Now these Gods/Frankensteins know more about us than we know about ourselves. They can manipulate our minds, our thinking, our aspirations in such a way that we never thought was possible. We have become their subordinate pawns. The Frankensteins have made Britain leave the EU, have produced the most unthinkable and unsuitable American president. Who knows what Frankenstein will do next? Frankenstein is on the march.
A. Rahman is an author and columnist.