Lead book review

The Big Tech firms are dividing the world between them

Cory Doctorow on the vast, impersonal forces manipulating our lives

15 August 2020

9:00 AM

15 August 2020

9:00 AM

The System: Who Owns the Internet and How it Owns Us James Ball

Bloomsbury, pp.288, 20

To look upon a freshly painted wall is to behold a smooth surface; to look at it through a magnifier is to see a rough and irregular landscape — but turn the magnification up sufficiently and see it become regular again, a geometric matrix of atoms held in molecular bonds. Keep magnifying and you enter the unimaginably messy realm of the subatomic, a weird place of eldritch geometries and smeared-out, probabilistic motion.

The world is smooth and rough, orderly and messy, all at once, depending on how closely you look. In The System, the journalist James Ball — a veteran of both WikiLeaks and the Guardian’s original Snowden team — peers at the internet at a variety of magnifications, starting with the physical wires and data centres, moving up the stack through the protocols and the governance mechanisms; the businesses and the businesses that enable the businesses; the surveillance operators and the regulators; and, finally, the loyal opposition — the civil society groups that dream about how wonderful it might be even as they live with the daily nightmare of how terrible it’s all becoming.

Ball’s storytelling mode is familiar to anyone who enjoys ‘narrative non-fiction’ — leavening the necessarily technical exposition about how all this stuff works with personal profiles of the people doing the work. He is a sprightly writer and a master explainer who does very well on the technical side, and he’s also a canny enough observer of the world that he steers clear of the pitfall of lionising his subjects, making heroic titans of them. Instead, he holds them up as examples, just one out of an army of similarly situated people who could be swapped in. He doesn’t want us to think of this as a clash of personal wills and personalities but, rather, as a system (hence the title), where, yes, named human beings take decisions of enormous import to billions, but whose overall freedom of motion is constrained by vast and impersonal forces.

The internet touches every facet of our lives and every one of the chapters in this book covers an entire specialist degree’s worth of ground, so the detail we get is more representative than comprehensive. But Ball has a gift for choosing which details to bring forth — for example, his chapter on advertising technology (‘ad-tech’) dispenses quickly with the easy arguments about whether or how behavioural advertising is ‘killing the news’ and moves onto real, meaty, thorny questions that are rarely asked in these discussions.

If you pay attention to this stuff you probably know about the ‘real-time auctions’ that take place when you visit a web-page, as the page’s publisher sends your personal information to dozens or hundreds of ad-brokers to see who’ll pay the most to place an ad on that page. But few people appreciate the fact that when this happens, all the losers in that action still come away with new information about you: ‘This person reads the Guardian’ (or the Times or Der Spiegel). Thereafter, these ad-brokers can go to their advertisers and say: ‘I have a comprehensive list of Guardianreaders and can advertise to them on places that are cheaper to place ads on than the Guardian itself.’ Is it any surprise that ad rates at the major publications are falling?

As if that wasn’t enough of a mind-blower, Ball follows it up with the compelling evidence that this ‘behaviour advertising’ system is, at best, only slightly better at figuring out how to show you a relevant advert than ‘contextual ads’ — those based on your IP address, the time of day or the content of the article you’re reading. In other words, news sites could stem the tide of falling ad rates by switching from creepy, surveillant behavioural ads to relatively innocuous context ads, arresting their slide into financial oblivion, with only a minor fall in their advertisers’ ability to sell their wares.

This kind of exposition made me like this book, but the broader context it serves made me like it even more. Here I must declare an interest. I know these people. I’ve picketed some of them at their places of work. I’ve helped to sue others. I eulogised one of them at his memorial service and have known another since I was a small child. At one point in his journey, Ball visits my workplace.

Based on that intimate knowledge, I think he does an excellent job here of showing how the system works, where its levers of power are, and how they can be moved. Which is important.

It’s important because you have an interest too. The Covid pandemic has settled forever the argument about whether and when technology is a human right. When everything we do — romance, familial relations, employment, education, politics, civil engagement, medical care and commerce — takes place on the internet, the system matters to you as well.

In his concluding chapter, Ball draws an apt comparison between the system of technology and the system of finance. Both are cloaked in complex obscurity, some of it deliberately, performatively dull, the kind of technical bafflegab one deploys if one hopes to commit great crimes and make them seem respectable by dismissing one’s critics as unqualified to venture an opinion. What’s more, finance and tech are largely inseparable, with the same shot-callers running both industries, and responding to the same imperatives.

Today, we are faced with a crisis of both finance and tech, thanks to the crisis in public health. Every chapter in this book — from the material on surveillance to that on global, networked soft power — has real bearing on the pandemic world. As economies implode, taking down those few remaining smaller firms with ties to places and people, we are experiencing a quiet wave of consolidations, in which the free-floating Big Tech firms (flush with tax-free, offshore cash) ‘rescue’ these smaller companies and absorb them, barrelling towards a future in which the world can be divided among them like the Great Powers whose peaceful status quo shattered with the Great War.

As we lurch towards that oligarchic stitch-up and its inevitable conflagration, The Systemcould not be more timely. Ball clearly loves this technology he writes about, has empathy for its self-styled guardians and would-be revolutionaries, and fears it too. He knows, as well as any of us, how rotten it’s become and how much worse it could become.

Ball’s message boils down to this: you can’t change technology until you understand it, and you can’t understand it merely by knowing what it does. You have to know who it does it for… and who it does it to.

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