‘Awakening the technological dream’ (Ed. Akal), the new book by Ekaitz Cancela (Barakaldo, 1993), delves into one of the essential issues of our time, digitization. The way in which the big technology companies are transforming the world, their role in a financialized economy and the repercussions for Spain and Europe that these changes are producing are analyzed from the philosopher’s point of view. Adorno, Benjamin and Morozov are quoted in a very necessary text to understand everything that we are playing.
Warren Buffett pointed out a few days ago that journalism is finished, that people bought the newspaper to see advertisements, offers and news, and that there are now much more effective means for that purpose. It is a peculiar conception of journalism.
The world is no longer governed by that financial system that allowed Buffett to keep 20 percent of the shares of The Washington Post while advising Katharine Graham on the newspaper’s stock market decisions. In the digital age, Jeff Bezos is the owner of the Post and has seen a new business opportunity in the press. It is not about commercializing journalistic information making it indistinguishable from advertising, but that it has turned this newspaper into something more innovative: a software provider, of content automation thanks to Amazon Web Services, the arm with the highest profit margin of this company. It is a structural change that printers have been replaced by technologies whose property is private. This historic change is something that must be politicized as soon as possible. Otherwise, we will be trapped in the infrastructure of four or five billionaires.
Are media and technology media allies or rivals?
There are capitalists, who are companies like Google and Facebook, a petty bourgeoisie composed of small publishers who team up with them, or receive scholarships that buy their will, and a class that produces the contents. The enormously precarious work of the latter is to create viral articles to position them in a search engine, fill out the Google indexes and that this company bill billions a year through its advertising business. In exchange for producing this data, with enormous value, professionals in the journalistic world receive a bit of online reputation and enormous doses of alienation. Therefore, these technological giants are enemies of the worker.
There is a risk to democracy when one of its bases, the public sphere, is privatized and commercialized under cheerful speeches about digitalization
Lately we have talked a lot about how a parallel communicative sphere has been created, and sometimes more effective than that of the media, through instruments such as WhatsApp.
There is a huge risk to our democracies when one of their bases, the public sphere, is privatized and completely commercialized under cheerful speeches about digitalization. Information is a fundamental element in decision making or rational deliberation. If these logics lose weight in favor of the mere creation of profitability, we end up attending scandals like Cambridge Analytica. New markets have been created based on the political or corporate manipulation of consciences and those democratic procedures that must face positions and reach agreements have been eliminated. As a communication channel of all this misinformation, WhatsApp introduces a new twist. We must erect our societies on public infrastructures, where the market does not have so much weight.
How is that goal achieved?
There are two options. One is that the right-wing groups come to power, take the State and the authoritarian tendency of neoliberalism is extended thanks to technological capabilities. One example is the growing role of corporate platforms at the federal level in enforcing the repressive immigration laws in the US. UU The other option, and this is what I advocate, involves proposing an agenda on your left that understands technology as a lever to promote broader economic transformations (in relation to industrial policy), social transformations (recover and protect public services) or think of more radical forms of democracies giving more decision-making power to citizens.
Spain looks like a colony selling to American or Chinese private companies. It’s time we talked about the struggle for technological sovereignty
What will be the role of the left in this digital world?
The Spanish left, unlike the right or that the social democracy, does not have a discourse or a clear ideology in this matter. Although it is also true that his opponents, with the exception of figures such as Luis Garicano, do not have an agenda beyond leaving this political vacuum free so that it is the techno-capitalist ideology that occupies it. Public administrations that relate to their citizens thanks to the Facebook proxy, social services that work like Google, or cybersecurity strategies designed thanks to the Amazon and Microsoft cloud. There is an opportunity to introduce all these issues into the public debate and mobilize civil society in favor of alternative utopias. We run the risk of not awakening from the dream and immerse ourselves more and more in this capitalist dystopia.
If the technology companies are winning, it is because other large capitalist companies lose out. Are there contradictions among the elites?
Capitalism is, among other things, a matter of competition. And this is given in warlike terms: some win, others die. Although there are also alliances. Telefónica has partnered with Facebook to provide rural mobile infrastructures, two thirds of the Ibex are hosted in cloud services from Microsoft, Google or Amazon to save costs and raise their profit rate. Bankia, thanks to the new digital payment systems of Apple or Facebook, gets much more data, such as the ability of its users to borrow, and can offer better financial services. The price is that, added to the social capital that Facebook has, this company assumes new functions of algorithmic governance. Spain seems a colony in the capitalist system selling to American or Chinese private companies. It is time for us to talk about the struggle for technological sovereignty, and not only at the national level, but also at the European level.
We must abandon neoclassical schemes and understand that the power of Google or FB, rather than advertising, lies in the data
What will be the role that Europe will play in this new environment?
The EU has been under the protection of the US since the Second World War to maintain its position in the world. The difference is that the rise of China, together with the development of the technological industry, has displaced it from the geopolitical center towards an increasingly subordinate position. With the exception of Germany, and probably France, the different nation states will need to acquire foreign technology in order to develop their economies, which, worth the redundancy, will become increasingly underdeveloped. All of this happens thanks to the community’s obsession with technocratic solutions that do not stop feeding the right-wing populist movements. Given this scenario, much more ambitious and radical joint strategies are necessary. Things as basic at a European level as that the fiscal policy takes into account these giants or that the assurance of privacy or encryption is part of the new European human rights. Also a much bigger investment, complicated without reversing the austerity policies that put a ceiling on spending, software infrastructures or European data centers. From these can be distributed computing power to the States but also to the cities or regions. In addition, the authorities that decide on competition policies must abandon neoclassical schemes and understand that the power of Google or FB, rather than advertising, lies in the data and in the markets for services, such as artificial intelligence, which offer thanks to them. Neither China nor the US have a conception of the welfare state as the European, which will disappear completely as we continue to believe in the promises of free markets. Is not the protectionist withdrawal of these giants sufficiently evident?
Why are the data so important? Many people say, well, they can have my data for publicity, but they are ineffective, they do not usually guess right. Maybe we are giving them too much importance …
It must be made clear that data is the fundamental resource of the digital economy, but also that there are broader capitalist dynamics. Data has always existed, but now they make up infrastructure similar to energy or electricity, they are extracted as never before thanks to technologies such as the internet of things and they are the center for the development of artificial intelligence, which creates new forms of consume and produce. The data ensures the competitive advantage of a few companies that have been accumulating data for years and spending a lot of money to train their artificial intelligence systems in the intensive use of data.
The media were the guardians of information, but they are no longer. Other companies control the entire knowledge ecosystem
The data create enormous amounts of feedback, allow real-time information of all exchanges in the market, of all the sensory experience in the cities, of what happens when they take a car, or if the lights are turned on in a street. Everything is mediated by data, so that digital technologies can plunge us into an eternal present immersed in the logic of capital or contribute to our joyful emancipation.
You dedicate a good part of your book to this interconnection between technology and the world of information. How will all this affect journalism?
The media have been the guardians of information for two centuries, but they are no longer. There are a number of companies that control the entire knowledge ecosystem and communication channels. Newspapers have been seen by Google or Facebook as an obstacle to the free flow of goods. Those who greased their pages will continue to be subjected to a stark competition to adapt to these unequal production relations.
What Spanish media will survive?
From the perspective of Google and Facebook, those who pay for their services to continue reporting, have a brand that ensures subscribers or strong business models. We speak of ‘El País’ and with more difficulty ‘El Mundo’. The first can already be read through Amazon Alexa or Google Home. In addition, the latter company has given him numerous scholarships to design innovative technologies. The question is rather what happens when the production, distribution and reproduction has been taken by these companies, and if so much surplus labor will be necessary. You do not have to be a genius to understand that many people who write articles will no longer be necessary with the rapid arrival in the drafting of automation systems or bots. Technology is not something given, but a historical product of capitalism, and this requires saving costs to ensure profitability. This will determine the business models of the media. If they manage to adapt they will survive and if not the media and the precarious journalistic class that supports them will be the object of a new technological ERE. It will happen as with Uber, that when they have automated cars, they will no longer need drivers. These cause losses, are not profitable for their investors.
The data, a cultural treasure like any library, allow us to plan the economy in a different way
The next move in the digital press is pay-per-view. It will work?
Yes, but in very specific cases and after a considerable investment. The New York Times, a newspaper of the elites, has a broad base of readers and therefore cash to invest 25 million dollars in a long-term subscription plan. With a good business strategy and the help of Google will continue to maintain the markets they have always had and probably expand it because their competitors will lose weight. For this, he has even acquired startups such as Wirecutter. ‘The Guardian’ also has subscribers thanks to its brand-name as a liberal speaker, that is, it has gotten people to pay for a kind of journalistic Ong. In Spain, ‘El País’ will have a journey, which has made a great movement in the market placing a reputed figure at the head of a newspaper eaten away by the rectors. And maybe also some good-paying editors who built their brand as 15M media representatives, something as questionable as the PSOE is. In any case, the media offer will be considerably reduced, but not before worsening the working conditions of journalists located at the lowest scale. Basically, today a subscription is much cheaper than in the past.
Besides the references to Walter Benjamin, the book has a curious air to the Adornment of ‘Dialectic of the Enlightenment’.
I owe part of my influence to the Frankfurt School, but not only. Evgeny Morozov recently criticized his “elitist pessimism” and his inability to see beyond consumption. That is why I prefer Benjamin’s recommendation: to understand the position of the author in the production process. That is what leads me to propose the collectivization of the means of production and to understand data as a common good of citizens, and not property of technological capitalists. It is about accessing these data, a cultural treasure like any library, to contemplate the possibilities that allow when planning the economy in a different way to that dictated by the markets. We can design our society in a way that encourages altruism and solidarity. Also create more ecologically sustainable, feminist economies that focus on the redistribution of resources and power.