Posts Tagged ‘data’

Cartoon of the day

Posted: 18 September 2017 in Uncategorized
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Bruce Plante Cartoon: Equifax  Clay Bennett editorial cartoon

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There are plenty of reasons to be interested in—and, even more, concerned about—Facebook. Many of them are raised in the recent review of Facebook-related books by John Lanchester [ht: db]: the fragmentation of the polity (via the targeting of posts), the dissemination of “fake news” (which played an important role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election), the undermining of other livelihoods (such as journalism and music), the level of surveillance of users (much more than any national government), the violation of anti-monopoly rules (via individualized pricing), and so on.

All of them are important—and they get at what the Facebook business model is all about:

For all the talk about connecting people, building community, and believing in people, Facebook is an advertising company.

That’s right. That’s how the owners of Facebook make their money: they track users, collect information, and then sell that to advertisers.*

But it still doesn’t get at the issue of who works for Facebook, who creates that value, what the class structure of Facebook (and Google and other such companies) is.

Lanchester’s answer is that we, the two billion or so of us who use Facebook, actually work for the social-media giant.

Access to an audience – that unprecedented two billion people – is a wonderful thing, but Facebook isn’t in any hurry to help you make money from it. If the content providers all eventually go broke, well, that might not be too much of a problem. There are, for now, lots of willing providers: anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company.

In one sense, Lanchester is right: if Facebook users don’t create or repost content and click on and respond to one another’s postings, then Facebook’s business model falls apart. In fact, as Lanchester explains,

Perhaps the biggest potential threat to Facebook is that its users might go off it. Two billion monthly active users is a lot of people, and the ‘network effects’ – the scale of the connectivity – are, obviously, extraordinary. But there are other internet companies which connect people on the same scale – Snapchat has 166 million daily users, Twitter 328 million monthly users – and as we’ve seen in the disappearance of Myspace, the onetime leader in social media, when people change their minds about a service, they can go off it hard and fast.

But what I find interesting is the fact that Lanchester can write a longish essay on Facebook and never once mention the word labor—and the only people who seem to be working are Facebook users.

What about Facebook’s employees? As it turns out, Facebook reported a headcount of 18,770 in its first-quarter earnings release (and likely employs more workers, as independent contractors for specific projects). Why don’t we consider them to be the ones who create the value realized by selling space to advertisers and information to others who purchase the data gathered by Facebook? And Facebook employees the ones who are working for and being exploited by Facebook’s board of directors?

When General Motors sells cars, the people who purchase and drive the cars aren’t being exploited; GM workers are. The same is true for other corporations, from Abbott Laboratories to Zoetis (which, along with Facebook, make up the Standard & Poor’s 500, covering about eighty percent of the American equity market by capitalization). They’re employees, not their customers, are the ones who create value and surplus-value.

So, why is Facebook (and, by the same token, other social-media and internet companies) different?

The answer, I think, is our relationship to the commodity being produced and sold is different. We purchase cars—and, if we’re aware of it, we know they’re produced by exploited auto-workers. But in the case of Facebook, we’re not purchasing anything at all, at least directly. We post content to our friends or advertise a business or try to form a community. And then it’s Facebook that collects data about us and sells it—not to us but to others, other corporations. Without our participation, of course, Facebook would not have anything to sell, and therefore no way of making a profit.

And, more generally, we seem to be spending more and more time involved in activities for which we are not remunerated but are essential for the profit-making activities of corporations we don’t work for. We post on social-media sites. We use search engines to navigate the internet. We search for flights. We check-out and bag the commodities we purchase at retail stores. And so on.

But I’m not convinced we’re creating value and subjecting ourselves to class exploitation. We may be performing labor but we’re not working for those corporations. And we are being commodified, and participating in our commodification.

But we’re not working for those corporations. Their employees are—and they’re the ones who are being exploited.

 

*Although, according to a recent report, Facebook may exaggerate the reach of its advertising platform: it claims to reach millions more users among specific age groups in the U.S. than the official census data show reside in the country.

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Regular readers know I take statistics quite seriously. So, as it turns out, did Stephen Jay Gould who, in the most poignant story about statistics of which I am aware, explained how important it is to go beyond the abstractions of central tendencies and understand the distribution of variation within the numbers.

And right now, when the numbers are under attack—when, for example, the new Trump administration is threatening to purge the inconvenient numbers about climate change—it is even more important to understand the role statistics play in economic and social life.*

William Davies [ht: ja] offers one story about statistics, starting with the recent populist attacks on public statistics and the questioning of the experts that produce and interpret them. His view is that, for all their faults, the numbers collected and disseminated by technical experts within national statistical offices need to be defended—as the representation of “common ideas of society and collective progress”—against the rise of private “data.”

A post-statistical society is a potentially frightening proposition, not because it would lack any forms of truth or expertise altogether, but because it would drastically privatise them. Statistics are one of many pillars of liberalism, indeed of Enlightenment. The experts who produce and use them have become painted as arrogant and oblivious to the emotional and local dimensions of politics. No doubt there are ways in which data collection could be adapted to reflect lived experiences better. But the battle that will need to be waged in the long term is not between an elite-led politics of facts versus a populist politics of feeling. It is between those still committed to public knowledge and public argument and those who profit from the ongoing disintegration of those things.

I understand the threat posed by big, private data—all those numbers that are collected “behind our backs and beyond our knowledge” when we travel, make purchases, and participate in social media, and in turn are utilized to sell us even more commodities (including, of course, political candidates).

But I also think Davies, in his rush to condemn private control over big data, presents too uncritical of a defense of “the kinds of unambiguous, objective, potentially consensus-forming claims about society that statisticians and economists are paid for.”

Consider, for example, one of the “unambiguous, objective, potentially consensus-forming claims about society” Davies himself cites: GDP. Just last Friday, the headlines reported that the U.S. economy grew “only” 1.6 percent during the last quarter of 2016, “the lowest level in five years.”

The presumption was that the decline in the number (with respect to both previous quarters and economists’ forecasts) represented a fundamental problem. But why should it—why should a decline in the growth rate of GDP be taken as a sign of something that needs to be fixed?

Davies does mention that GDP “only captures the value of paid work, thereby excluding the work traditionally done by women in the domestic sphere, has made it a target of feminist critique since the 1960s.” But the controversies surrounding that particular statistic are much more widespread than Davies would have us believe. As a number of recent books (including Ehsan Masood’s The Great Invention: The Story of GDP and the Making and Unmaking of the Modern World) have clearly explained, the initial formulation of that particular measure of national income as well as subsequent revisions have involved theoretical and political choices about what should and should not be included—government expenditures but not labor within households, the production of fossil fuels but not the destruction of the natural environment, sales of private security but not the growing inequality it is designed to protect against.**

Even more fundamentally, GDP is a measure of market transactions, of goods and services produced—and thus the contemporary counting of the elements celebrated by Adam Smith’s notion of the “wealth of nations.” But what it doesn’t measure are the conditions under which those commodities are produced.

Me, I’d be much more willing to join forces with Davies and defend the claims about society that statisticians and economists are paid for if they were also paid to calculate and publicly report one other number, S/V, the rate of exploitation.

 

**We should remember that perhaps the real hero of volume 1 of Capital was Leonard Horner, who as a factory inspector “carried on a life-long contest, not only with the embittered manufacturers, but also with the Cabinet, to whom the number of votes given by the masters in the Lower House, was a matter of far greater importance than the number of hours worked by the ‘hands’ in the mills.”

**Other useful books on GDP include the following: Philipp Lepenies’s The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP (Columbia University Press, 2016), Lorenzo Fioramonti’s Gross Domestic Problem: The Politics Behind the World’s Most Powerful Number (Zed Books, 2013), and Thomas A. Stapleford’s The Cost of Living in America: A Political History of Economic Statistics, 1880-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2009).