The State of Us

Two stories about the collision between the state and Big Tech.

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This week two stories caught my eye.

Both, in their own way, offer a window on to the high-energy collision between the state and powerful technology platforms.

So this week, a note on that collision. Our journey starts with a doorbell in Oxford.

Let’s go!


This week, a judge here in the UK ruled that an Oxford citizen who installed an Amazon Ring doorbell had infringed his neighbour’s privacy.

Jon Woodard installed the doorbell, which is fitted with a camera, after a series of break-ins at his property. But the device captured footage of his neighbour Mary Fairhurst’s house and garden; in her legal complaint Fairhurst said she was ‘alarmed and appalled’ to discover that Woodard had footage of her – which included audio of conversations with family members – on his phone.

The judge agreed that this constituted an invasion of privacy, and said the footage was data that should properly be considered Fairhurst’s. Woodard now faces a fine of up to £100,000.

Meanwhile, on Friday a new Face Pay system launched across over 240 metro stations in Moscow. The facial recognition system is non-compulsory and requires riders to upload a profile picture to an app, which will then automatically take payment when they pass through ticket gates.

Moscow already has one of the world’s most extensive facial recognition networks. The city’s Department of Information Technology says images captured by ticket gates won’t be shared with state authorities. But that hasn’t assuaged the concerns of privacy campaigners, who point out that the metro is a government institution and call the move, ‘a dangerous new step in Russia’s push for control over its population’.

It’s telling that in stories about the Moscow metro this week, journalists seeking a comparison with the Global North didn’t talk about state surveillance. Instead, they reached for another platform: Amazon One, a biometric payment system that allows users to pay with their palm print.

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I write a lot in NWSH about the emergence of Big Tech as a new form of socio-corporate power. One, that is, that combines the power of the corporation with forms of social power more traditionally associated with the state.

Via that emergence, a tension is growing between nation states and Big Tech platforms. That tension manifests itself in a thousand ways. We all know it’s there; we all know that a reckoning must come.

This week’s stories about an Amazon device and the Moscow metro provide a glimpse of the two forms this reckoning is taking.

In Russia, and even more so in China, the state has asserted itself and enforced a settlement. It is co-opting the power of technology in order to create an all-seeing, all-knowing technostate. See the way China has moved definitively in recent months to seize control of Jack Ma’s vast Ant Group. See the Moscow state authorities and their facial recognition network.

In the Global North, by contrast, no settlement has emerged. And the strange rivalry between state power and Big Tech platforms seems only to be growing more acute.

Back in Algorithms with Chinese Characteristics I compared the AI-fuelled, data-driven surveillance-and-control system that Amazon is building around its own workers to the technostate that China is building arounds its citizens.

The Wall Street Journal coined a term for this new form of industrial capitalism; it called it Bezosism. But this week’s Ring doorbell story is a reminder – along with the recent launch of the Astro in-home robot – that Amazon isn’t just building a surveillance system around its own workers: it’s building one around us all.

What if Bezosism, then, is best understood not as only a new practise inside industrial capitalism, but as something more? Something closer to a new and all-encompassing social system. One that rivals the power and reach of the state?

It sounds an extreme idea. Then again, there’s never been a corporation driven by such ambition to know everything about us: the streets we live on, what’s happening inside our houses, and even what’s going on, moment to moment, inside our bodies.

In short: the states of the Global North and the Big Tech platforms of Silicon Valley are on a collision course.

Seen this way, this week’s ruling on a Ring doorbell in the UK is just one tiny fragment of a far larger picture. We’re at the start of a long process via which the states of the Global North attempt to draw new lines around the power of technology.

Legal disputes such as that between Mr Woodard and Dr Fairhurst of Oxford will form one part of this process. So will top-down legislation such as that outlined by the European Parliament vote to constrain the use of facial recognition systems, which I wrote about in this week’s New Week Same Humans.

In China and Russia, the technostate is nascent. It’s nothing less than a radical new conception of what government and society can be. Citizens of the Global North, for the most part, know that they don’t want to go down that path. But they shouldn’t think themselves immune to far-reaching socio-political change via the collision between the state and Big Tech.

Together, we must figure out what a liberal democracy looks like, and how it works, in a connected world. That’s a long journey; the final destination remains unclear.


Power Stations

Thanks for reading this week.

We humans are intractably social creatures; we must live together. Out of that truth emerges the need for the state. And since its beginnings, this newsletter has been obsessed by the implications that a connected world has for the nature of state power.

That’s no surprise: this story is a classic case of new world, same humans. And that’s why NWSH will continue to track the collision between the state and Big Tech in the years ahead.

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I’ll be back as usual on Wednesday; until then, be well.

David.


David Mattin sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.