BIG TECH: When Attention Platforms please the Sovereign and not the User

Where would we be without some cautionary warnings about technology overlords and attention black holes? Since you asked, we'll give you some things to think about. The first is Absher, a web service from the Saudi government that helps men track the location of their female family members. As an all-around government services app, male users can pay parking tickets or renew a driver's license. They can also designate where a woman in their guardianship is allowed to travel -- a practice empowered by local law, culture and religion. The app will notify the man if the woman's passport is scanned at an airport or border check point with a convenient text message. The app has been downloaded over 1 million times on Android devices.

The other example is China's "Xi Study Strong Nation" app, which is the media voice of the Communist Party in a modern format. Users read articles and watch videos on the platform, earning points for such engagement -- say 0.1 points for each item. The app uses intelligence to process behavioral data so that it knows if the user is truly engaging, or just scrolling around. If you fire up the content in the evenings, however, the rewards for engagement double up. This way, readers are incented to exchange relaxation for Party reading. But why do any of this at all as a user, you ask? While we can only rely on the media sources available, those suggest that employment could be predicated on fulfilling a sufficient number of points (e.g., 40 a day) in order to remain in social and political standing. What starts out as a gamified learning experience quickly becomes a social prison. We hypothesize that data about propaganda consumption can also be tied into the country's social credit score, which determines everything from financial product & service access to potential for academic admission. No wonder Reddit's community is creeped out by the recent $300 million investment from Tencent.

It is dangerous to make cultural judgments from a place of ignorance -- and we are but a meek Fintech newsletter. Still, we can sharpen our mental model and draw generalizable conclusions from these cases. In the West, the tech platforms (Facebook, Google, Twitter) are in trouble for selling human attention to the highest bidder. But at least their core function is to use technology in order to increase a user's choice and self-actualization, or one's impression thereof. By sharing photos, shopping on Amazon, or searching for information, we are making personal and empowered decisions -- even if those decisions are within the speed-lanes prescribed to us by a corruptible AI-brained Newsfeed.

In these counter examples, a sovereign has penetrated the attention platform in order to redirect the attention and associated power to itself. These apps are not made to facilitate the choices of humans, but to make stronger the social human constructs of law, power, culture and religion. They extend not the open promise of creativity and self-fulfilment on the Internet, but rather cement into code the existing flawed beehive in which we operate. Putting sovereigns into software -- which unlike humans is ever-present and all-seeing -- is a bad call. In a round-about way, perhaps it is best to leave Facebook and Twitter and Netflix and Amazon alone. Allowing government control into these apps, even if just a bit, is a slippery slope way down the rabbit hole.

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Source: Business Insider (AbsherApple & Google), China Media Project (Little Red Phone), NY Times (Little Red App), Bloomberg (Reddit / Tencent), Netflix & GDPR