Saturday, November 23, 2019

Book Review: 'The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World' by Alexis Wichowski

The United States has spawned some monstrously gigantic tech firms in its effort to promote the growth of the internet. On Wall St., they are called FAANG – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google. Alexis Wichowski has added Microsoft and Tesla, and called them net-states in her book The Information Trade. What she does with this designation is sinful.

The basic conceit here is that tech giants are states themselves. Not nation states with borders and armies, but internet-based states that transcend borders and have their own rules that they apply for themselves, for their own benefit. They are layered over the rest of civilization in their own orbit, blanketing the Earth electronically. Wichowski wants readers to think they are beyond our control, never going away, and that being super-states, need to be appeased. Oddly, she never once uses the word globalization, which goes a very long way to describing what these net states have achieved for themselves without the aggravation of multilateral agreements or even permission.

Most of the book is a superficial, standard exposition of stats and status: big numbers of users, big social problems they create, legal limbos and dangerous results, like a fivefold increase in pedestrian deaths thanks to tech distractions. There are lots of interesting facts throughout, such as how many IQ points people lose when multitasking, or the word counts in the Terms of Service of the major net state websites. There is a chapter on the extent of surveillance, and one on the internet of things. How Atlanta paid millions to Microsoft to restore its computers rather than pay $51,000 to lift a ransomware attack. This goes on for nearly 200 pages without breaking any new ground or providing any insights not also found in countless places all over the internet and in other books.

Wichowski does not make much of anything with all the data she has hoovered up. Worse, she is sloppy with it: “The median American household income in 2016 was $57,617. Income varies significantly by state, of course, but that was the nationwide average,” she says. Median is very different from average, so which is it? It makes a difference. (Average income is outlandishly high in the USA because of extreme inequality. Median is the single family in the very center of the list). This is appallingly sloppy and makes me think she is out her depth.

Then suddenly, in a remarkable switch, Wichowski proposes total surrender. Rather than reign in the net states and make them conform to our norms, fine them or break them up, she proposes giving them state recognition. She wants to create a United Nations of net states, where they can sort out how to take over the world. She also proposes a kind of Geneva Convention for net state users, so that humans have some minimal set of rights globally.

This is just shy of unconditional surrender. Far from taxing and regulating the net states, she seems to say countries are in a position of abject weakness and must try to settle for something small, or lose it all. This is a very strange position to advocate.

She recommends rules that permit users to prevent net states from selling their personal data – providing users pay say five dollars month for life. An extra $60 billion a year would be attractive to any global firm. In exchange, users get to keep uploading content for free, to be used at will by the net state. Sound good? Users would also have the right to delete their own uploads, but the subsequent comments, harassment and abuse would remain, property of the net state. This is Finland suing for peace with Stalin, knowing it has not a leg to stand on.

The book ends weakly as Wichowski openly becomes an apologist for net states, which are apparently busy weeding out haters, frauds and terrorists, protecting democracy, and protecting user data all over the world. We really must keep them happy.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. He is the author of The Straight Dope or What I learned from my first thousand nonfiction reviewsLike what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.