Your phone isn’t a phone, it’s a two-way mirror. And there are some pretty terrifying people on the other side.
They are watching you, but you can’t see them, and most of the time you have no idea they’re even watching you.
But they are, always. Everything you do, say, search, buy, sell, book or swipe.
They know it all, and they have the capabilities to do incredible things with it.
Just look at Pokémon Go. What seemed to us consumers as a fun game where you could chase Pokémon across the real world – our own neighbourhoods – in fact the game was used to direct actual physical human traffic to certain places.
Restaurants, bars, shops and attractions would compete and buy rights to have desirable Pokémon at their sites, which caused actual living breathing humans to follow the nudges of this game to their front doors.
It wasn’t a way for us to have fun, it was a way for them to take control of our very bodies, taking us to the places they wanted us to go.
Pokémon Go wasn’t a Nintendo game – which owns the characters – but the project of Niantic Labs, an augmented reality startup. What it designed was a global experiment to discover what could be achieved with physical data – what it could make us do, for its own gain. Niantic took payments from actual businesses to herd us into their pizza stores, bars and car shops.
Surely this would be secretive and a fringe claim? Nope – here’s what the company’s VP said in interview in 2017, near the height of its popularity.
“The idea is to offer players items at certain locations, and partners pay $0.15 for each visitor attracted to the game. And we’ve already attracted 500 million visitors. In Japan [at the game’s peak in summer 2016], each activated McDonald’s store attracted 2,000 visitors a day.”
These companies are trading in our data, our preferences, our behaviour and now even our physical movements.
What Pokémon Go shows is that the data farming big tech firms are not just predicting our future decisions – what we will buy and where we will go – but actually shaping those decisions for us.
When Google was moving into the phone retailing business with its Pixel range, there was an internal debate.
Some people thought great – look at Apple, look how well it’s doing by selling phones.
But the opposite argument, which won out, was this.
The phone isn’t a phone, it’s an interface. It’s a node, a data point. The phone isn’t the product, the customer is, and so what we need to do is make great phones and give them to people as cheaply as we possibly can.
It won because what Google has realised is that the most precious commodity, the one which is growing top and bottom lines by double-digit percentages every year for the last two decades, is not phones, but data.
The Industrial Revolution turned our labour into a tradeable asset. Labour for money.
Now it’s deeper. We are giving up ourselves, turning our very existence into a measurable set of data, giving it to big corporations and letting them trade it for money.
Instead, these companies can determine what we eat and drink, where we go, where we work, who we marry, and more.
What Google realised shortly after the dotcom bubble burst was that it had all this data on what people were searching for on its platform.
By collating it and building some predictive algorithms, it realised it could quite accurately predict what people were going to buy or do.
So Google went to companies and said if you pay us, we’ll tell you what you can do to increase traffic and conversion on your retail website.
And that’s how Google’s search function changed from being of benefit to consumers – you and I – to the retailers who learn our most intimate secrets.
The core notion is that privacy is not private.
A Microsoft facial recognition training database plucked 10 million images from the internet without anyone’s knowledge.
Although it was supposedly limited to academic research, it was employed by companies like IBM and state agencies that included the US and Chinese military.
Among these were two Chinese suppliers of equipment to officials in Xinjiang, China.
Xinjiang, as hopefully all of our readers now know, is home to the largest scale examples of surveillance, open-air imprisonment, cultural destruction, religious oppression, mass incarceration, forced imprisonment, organ harvesting and other truly unpalatable human rights atrocities.
Across China as a whole, every citizen is given a social credit score. This score is affected by whether you pay bills on time, cross streets when the man is red, post inflammatory material online, etc.
If your score dips too low, you might be blocked from buying transport tickets, getting jobs, and you may be publicly shamed.
It’s an aberration off government control, with the Chinese Communist Party’s tentacles seeping through every crack into your home, your life and your travel.
And the technology and data behind it was developed by Microsoft and other tech firms.
Amazon is in the firing line too.
When a retailer chooses to sell its wares on Amazon, there is a trade-off that goes beyond the financial.
Doing so gives Amazon oversight of every step in your sales process, and gives it access to the data on what your customers like, pay, say and buy.
That has allowed Amazon to replicate and undercut thousands of products on its site. In fact, only 53% of products (as of Q4 2019) sold on Amazon are manufactured by third party retailers. The rest are its own products.
Those products have the insurmountable advantage of their parent’s backing – better promotion, smarter costing, relegation of competition to page 2, and an existing trove of data on optimising the production and sales process.
They wait for independent retailers to make the mistakes then learn from them, applying the lessons to their own stuff.
The conclusion from every part of this is that these massive tech firms have a massive informational advantage over us. It’s like when church services used to be in Latin… which no one could understand.
So if the priest told you something was in the Bible, you just had to believe it on the basis of the church’s self-appointed authority. There was a near-100% informational advantage to the church.
But that’s where we now are, in a world of data where cloud companies are the most valuable (it’s Microsoft’s best-performing department), where governments can track every movement, purchase and tweet and put a single number on it, where your desires and even your footsteps are measured, predicted and sold.
I hate it when people say we stand at a fork in the road, it’s overly simplistic.
There are heaps of options for where this could go, but there is only one direction it is currently going.
And that is forwards. More data. More connection. More tech.
I’m talking about 5G. You think having a phone and an Amazon account gives them a lot of data. Just wait until your fridge, car, kettle, bed, shower and toilet seat are sending data to the big five of tech.
I’m not joking about the toilet seat by the way – Google has developed a toilet seat that measures your heart rate and blood oxygenation levels without you knowing.
You could get off the loo to find a man thrusting iron tablets through your letterbox, with instructions to take them twice daily, from your toilet!
One explosion of data has happened – did you notice? I didn’t and no one did really, until now, when it’s too late.
It seems that a second explosion is going on unnoticed.
The first footsteps of 5G are top toeing their way into our lives. Huawei is overcoming fears about China’s interference the world over – just remember the example of Ethiopia’s African Union building yesterday.
The explosion is happening again. I don’t like it, but if I can’t fight it I might as well make money from it. That’s my view anyway.
If you want to do the same, a man who knows much more about 5G than me has pulled together his research on the developments, and found his number one investment for the second data explosion.
I’ll finish with one a line from Jeremy Usborne in the eternally brilliant Peep Show, talking to his flatmate Mark:
M: Why have you got cat food?
J: To confuse them. Bloody Nectar inspectors. That’s why I got the denture cleaner, to throw them a weird one. “Who are these guys?”
M: Great, so now they’ll think we’re a couple of guys with our booze and our pizzas and a cat we starve and an old man we’ve kidnapped, whose dentures we periodically deign to cleanse.
That’s all from me today. Have a good one,
Investment Research Analyst, Southbank Investment Research