Within the technology space there are now a small number of hugely powerful players. These players, including Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Meta (previously Facebook) and Apple, are now so dominant that their impact is felt beyond the technology space. With this comes some advantages, but as I have often written, we live in a world of balances, and therefore there are also some potential risks or drawbacks.
Writing this blog piece came as a result of reading an article in relation to Sony and the PlayStation brand, a large and powerful player within the gaming space, where they are being sued in relation to breaching anti-competition laws, using their powerful position to apply pressure to games developers and publishers which then drive up game prices and therefore profits. You can read the article here. We have previously seen similar lawsuits levelled against both Google and Amazon in relation to their shopping platforms either favouring suppliers or brands based on their relationship with Google/Amazon or favouring their own brand products in the case of Amazon. In the case of Google/Amazon the concern relates to their power resulting from providing the search functionality for users while also either providing products themselves or providing advertising services to brands/suppliers.
And this isn’t the only risk in relation to these big players. In the case of Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple, they store our data for us in the case of Google Drive, OneDrive or iCloud. Where this is free storage, this is convenient for us, but if we aren’t paying for the service how are the ongoing costs being covered? Recently France suggested that schools not use the free services of Google or Microsoft for this reason.
It may be that in using their services for search or for purchasing items or for music, etc, they gather data about us. So as the large players, that most of us will have regular interactions with, they will be gathering huge amounts of data about us which they then can use to profile and predict our behaviours. Now we might accept that they do this for good reasons such as improving their services, etc, however if we believe that some of their corporate practices have been questioned it may also be reasonable to consider that they could seek to misuse this data. And in the case of those services supported by advertising revenue it would be easy to see how they might use the data to influence our decision making and that’s before you consider the possibility of these services, themselves, suffering a data breach resulting in all this data being leaked onto the public internet.
There is also the issue of truth; In the case of Google and Facebook, which allow users to access the news and other current affairs information, they control the information they present to users. How do we know that they are presenting the “right” information? (I note that establishing what is “right” or “the truth” is a problem in itself, however is outside the scope of this short post) How confident are we that the information being presented to us is absent of bias? Do the algorithms present sufficiently broad viewpoints or just present a singular viewpoint, that which the algorithm thinks we want to hear? In trying to keep us engaged with the platform do the algorithms tend to only present viewpoints we are likely to agree with, thereby creating echo chambers and online binary arguments?
The significant issue here is the fact that we havent been through this kind of technological change ever before in history. Yes, we had the invention of the printing press, of radio and of TV, but these didn’t impact on society with quite the same pace of change as the combination of smart phones, internet access and social media. And the difference in pace of change is so easily observed in the rate of adoption with the TV taking 22yrs to reach 25% of market access while Facebook only took 2 years. We are now in a situation where so many of us are carrying an internet enabled device in our pockets, and regularly interacting with apps, including search and social media, where these apps and their underlying algorithms are constantly gathering data in order to hone and adjust the content which they serve us with.
Now I know when I talk to students they don’t want to give up the convenience of google search or amazon for shopping, or the interesting content, including that from friends and family, provided by TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. I will admit I am equally reluctant and would find not having google and twitter difficult.
So what is the answer?
Well I think the answer is simply to discuss and acknowledge that these services and the vendors that provide them, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Meta, etc, provide us beneficial solutions, however in most things there is a balance. We need to be aware of this balance, we need to discuss this balance with students such that they know the drawbacks and risks associated with the vendors and solutions we now so commonly use. It may be that our current technology revolution resolves itself much like TV, radio and the printing press of the past, however in case it doesn’t, I think we need to develop our overall awareness of the risks.