Standort: / Meldung: "We're all cyborgs being farmed by Silicon Valley"

Joanna Bostock

Reading between the headlines.

11. 11. 2016 - 18:53

We're all cyborgs being farmed by Silicon Valley

Activist, designer, and software developer Aral Balkan on digital slavery and how to combat it.

Aral Balkan is an activist, designer, and software developer. He jointly runs a social enterprise called which "strives for social justice in the digital age."

He told me why he's concerned about the practices of the big Internet companies and what his vision for the future of digital technology looks like.

Christina von Poser

Aral Balkan

Joanna Bostock: You have said that we are all cyborgs, what do you mean by that?

Aral Balkan: We don’t have to implant ourselves with technology to be cyborgs. Technology extends our biological abilities, so if you use contact lenses for example – you’re a cyborg, you’re extending your biological abilities using technology. When we get to something like our smartphones or our computers, then the amount of extra senses is profound and limitless.

So in your view we need to start thinking about our digital rights as human rights?

That’s right, there’s no separation between the two and that’s key. If we extend ourselves through technology it’s time to start thinking about extending the protections of the self to the technologies by which we extend ourselves. Is my smartphone a separate actor to me? For example, when I’m using the notes application on it, am I just having a conversation with an actor? If somebody is listening in, is that just traditional surveillance in the sense of signals capture between two actors, or is it something different? When I write a thought, is that me saving that thought onto my phone and thereby extending my mind, and thereby extending myself? And if that’s the case, then is surveillance something very different in that scenario? Is it an abuse of the self? If we don’t understand the nature of the self in the digital then we won’t be able to protect human rights in the digital age.

Smartphone Homescreen

CC-BY-SA 2.0 / Jan Persiel -

When I was a seven year old kid I got a personal computer. Back then computers didn’t spy on you, they were yours to own and control. I started programming at age 7, and I could create starfields and universes and little starships and fly through them. That was a magical, honest experience and we lost that. We went from mainframes which were centralised to personal computers, which was the first time we had decentralised technology owned and controlled by individuals. And then we got the Web. We thought we were getting this decentralised network, and the Internet is, but the Web isn’t. The Web is the mainframe 2.0. What really excites me is what’s going to be the personal computer of the Internet era – that’s what I’m working on, what I’m trying to create and understand, and that’s what I think we need to be focussing on.

You said that "we need to start thinking about extending protections" - does that mean we have not yet started thinking about these things? I’m asking because we already hear a lot about privacy activism…

We talk about privacy as if it is some lofty, first world concept, and it’s not, it’s a fundamental human right, at least it’s seen that way in Europe for a very good reason, because the other rights depend on it. What privacy gives you in relation to other, more powerful actors, like governments, and multi-billion dollar multinational corporations, is the ability to level the playing field, to level the power relationship. Today we live in a world in which governments and corporations know everything about us, and we don’t know anything about them. If I buy a Google Nest device for example, a camera, and I put it in my home, then they can look at me, but if I take a camcorder and walk into Google Incorporated’s offices then I will get arrested.

You’re talking about Google, and it’s quite a concrete example…

Right, it’s every Silicon Valley company basically, Facebook, it’s Snapchat, it’s Twitter. We’re talking about a business model here, a shared business model that revolves around learning as much about people as you can and then analysing that information, psychoanalysing it and then monetising that. So, the business model of mainstream technology today is what I call “people farming”. Google is a factory farm, Facebook is a factory farm, and what they’re farming is human beings. Not their bodies – we did that in the past, and unfortunately it’s still going on in many places, and we call it slavery. We don’t want your body anymore but what do we call the business of obtaining and controlling and owning and trading in everything else about a person that makes them who they are, apart from their physical body? That’s the business model of mainstream technology today.

Does that mean we’re living in the age of digital slavery?

We’re definitely living in a feudalistic system. We’ve created these CEO “kings”: the Mark Zuckerbergs, the Erich Schmits of the world. They have an inordinate amount of power and control over us. We talk about physical and digital – those two things are intrinsically linked, we can’t separate them. Imagine what I can do if I have enough data about you, imagine what these companies can do with enough data about each one of us, we call it profiling …

But how much data about me physically is out there in the digital sphere?

Well, unless you’re a hermit, way more than you realise. And it’s not just the data, remember the data is just the raw material. Data is very valuable but it’s when we mine it, when we analyse it – that’s when we derive value, that’s when we start making assumptions about you: this is what you like, this is what you don’t like, and here are the people you associate with, what does that say about you? Facebook has a patent for example, on giving you a credit score based on who your friends are and who you associate with on Facebook. China is already implementing this as policy: your social score in China will determine whether or not you are seen as a good citizen and get certain privileges.

Social Media Icons

CC-BY-2.0 / greyweed -

Tell me about Heartbeat...

Heartbeat is a project we started about two years ago, and it’s in pre-alpha because we’ haven’t touched it for eight months. “Pre-alpha” is just a term that we say when it’s not ready yet, and it sounds really cool …

But you want people to know what you’re actually working on?

Basically yes. Heartbeat is a decentralised, peer-to-peer social network. So when we’re having a conversation on Heartbeat it’s just you and me, no one in the middle. That’s the opposite of Facebook. In a decentralised system it’s peer to peer, just how it should be, and it can be ephemeral as well just like a conversation that’s not recorded. That’s actually really important because that’s how people grow. Are you the same person that you were when you were twelve years old? When you were fifteen? When you were 20? Did you learn, did you grow? What if you couldn’t forget the things that you said and did and every time you did something now what you did at twelve years old was brought back to you? We’d have a very different type of society. And that’s where Heartbeat comes in, it’s one prototype.

Do you have any idea of when it might be something that people can actually get their hands on?

Well this is really core to everything that I’m going to be doing this year and in the coming years, because what we’ve learned building that prototype and why it’s still at that stage is that we are going to need a huge amount of investment to take it from there to where it could actually be a scalable system that could be functional and do what it’s supposed to do. And for that, what I want to see happening is, at the European level, I think we need to start investing in decentralised technologies.
So here’s my vision for a different future: what if, in Europe, every person gets a unique identifier on the Internet? We call them domain names today on the Web. You get a unique domain name and an encrypted node which is a live back up of your information, that’s always on. So you get that, as a European citizen, when you’re born. And that’s just one node though, every one of your devices that you own and control is another node, but people know where to find you from your identifier on the Web. Immediately we have decentralised the identifiers, because today you need Facebook – you go to facebook because your friends are there.

But when you’re talking about everyone having an individual ID, that sounds like something that needs governments to put it into place…

Not necessarily. Look at the domain name system as it exists today. Initially it was under the control of the US and that’s been relaxed. We had different domain registrars for example, working in an interoperable way. Interoperability is the key thing and you create a standard and then you enable lots of different groups to build upon that standard and maybe take it further and in different directions, and maybe innovate on top of that standard. The key thing we have to do here and what makes it 180 degrees different from Silicon Valley, is our goal has to be to build a healthy commons. Everything we build has to be supported by the commons and go back to the commons.

So re-democratising?


Reality Check Special: "We are turned into digital slaves"

In this Saturday’s Reality Check Special (12-13) we meet the activist, designer, and software developer Aral Balkan, who explains how Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley giants are turning us into digital slaves by spying on us and farming our data. He talks passionately about the possibilities opened up by the first personal computers, how that potential has been subverted by the evolution of the Web, he describes the infringement of our digital rights and maps the path to reclaiming our digital privacy.

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