The Plague-Ground – This Could Be Dangerous

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Back in 2010, a publicist persuaded me to invite an unknown Columbia Law Professor to speak at a RamsayTalk about his new book.

The Master Switch showed how tech companies that were dedicated to openness soon evolved into “a more closed system.”.

Eleven years ago, this idea was new and shocking, just the thing for our audience. But I wanted to speak with the author first to see how articulate he was. These days you can do that online because every author on earth is on video. So I called Tim Wu in New York and discovered that inside this serious legal scholar was a kid eager to explain his new theory. Perfect. As we wound down, I told him we’d of course put him up at a nice hotel when he came to Toronto. To this, he replied: “Thanks. But I’ll stay with my mom and dad.”

“They live in Toronto?”

“Ya, I’m from Toronto…and can I ask you a favour? Can I invite my mom and dad to the talk?”

His mom, Gillian Wu, was an immunologist at York University, and his dad, Alan Ming-ta Wu, a medical researcher at the U of T. They’d sent their son to an alternative elementary school run by the Toronto Public School Board, and he was in the same class with Cory Doctorow.

The Master Switch went on to be named one of the best books of 2010 by both The New Yorker and Fortune.

That was then.

This is now. On Friday, Joe Biden made Tim Wu his special assistant for technology and competition policy, “putting one of the most outspoken critics of Big Tech’s power into the administration.”

That’s one way for the New York Times to put it. A more useful one is that those of us – and we number in the billions — who live and work online finally have an ally in our so far hopeless battle against surveillance capitalism and the predations of data monopolists like Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google.

It will take a government much bigger than Australia’s to push back against them. True, Australia’s economy is still bigger than they are — with a GDP of $1.4 trillion. But last year their combined revenues were $912 billion and are growing wildly this year. While we can debate whether Australia or Facebook blinked first in their battle for control of social media last month, it’s clear that Mark Zuckerberg has no intention of backing down when a mere nation tries to stop him.

But maybe he will when his own country tries.

The country that Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google call home, and under whose rules they are forced largely to operate.

The country whose new anti-trust buster relishes a fight with them, and who has spent a decade studying exactly how these Attention Merchants have become attention monopolists. They are not only getting inside our heads, but shoving out so much else.

As Tim Wu says: “When we speak of living environments and their effects on us, we are often speaking too broadly — of the city, the countryside, and so on. Our most immediate environment is actually formed by what holds our attention from moment to moment, whether having received or taken it. As William James once put it, ‘My experience is what I agree to attend to.’”

No wonder the tech companies are muttering “This could be dangerous” when talking about Wu’s new job.

Some kid from Toronto is the fox in the biggest hen-house on earth.

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