Law in the Internet Society

So What, Exactly, Is The Problem?

-- By TheoTamayo - 10 Jan 2024

Three minutes into The Social Dilemma, an interviewer asks the assembled former tech executives—people who had quit their jobs and agreed to be interviewed for a documentary out of concern that the companies and products they built posed imminent dangers to society—the question they must have known was coming: why? Or, more specifically, “what is the problem?”

None of them can give a straight answer to this simple question. Some start speaking and then stop; some ponder furiously as the camera rolls; some just give up and laugh. This thirty seconds of footage already felt ominous. But it wasn’t until my cousin asked me the same question at Thanksgiving dinner that I absorbed its depth, and personally experienced and replicated the interviewees’ reactions and eventual silence. That silence profoundly scares me. And I believe that it manifests the immediate, formidable hurdle on the path towards a better Internet Society.

Vast and Amorphous

I can identify two reasons why those smart, informed, and well-meaning insiders struggled to respond to this question. The first is an issue of scale. The second is an issue of obscurity.


The problem the question identifies is almost inconceivably huge. Professor Zuboff has spent decades researching and hundreds of pages describing a single facet of it; her opus can do no more than set the scene for a debate about how to address the problem. Professor Turkle has filled her entire, lengthy academic career cataloging just some of its visible symptoms. This course takes a semester to sketch the situation and outline the path towards a solution; its companion course takes another semester to demonstrate how to build and use the components of that solution. The problem is so large that those who do not know to look for it cannot see it. Even those who do look must be primed, educated, and willing to question fundamental aspects of their lives in order to begin to grasp its scope.


The problem also defies categorization and precise description. It is completely novel not just in magnitude but form, crossing and blurring areas of study that universities and societies treat as distinct. Business, psychology, computer science, and so many more fields fit comfortably within its dimensions. Not only do we struggle to see the shadow it casts because we all stand in it together—we lack the narrative tools to capture, dissect, and report on it.

The problem’s architects, aided by a documentary film crew, take ninety painstakingly-produced minutes to summarize its basic details. I stood no chance of doing it justice at the Thanksgiving table. But while my failure will cost family members some measurable amount of their freedom, I have come to believe that my efforts were not only doomed, but misguided.

Plant Questions, Grow Converts

The public’s ignorance and apathy towards this issue might be evidence that its scale and shadowy form render us unable to clearly and effectively describe “what is happening,” “what is wrong with it,” and “what can be done about it” to capable political constituencies. But this course’s decades-old repository of accurate, published descriptions suggests that our problem is not the technical issue of descriptive capacity but the human issue of narrative power.

We have been trying to convince a (charitably) semi-computer-literate population that technologies they rely on but only minimally grasp threaten their fundamental freedoms. We have learned that jeremiads only work on the zealous—they do not convince nonbelievers. So rather than providing people with solutions to problems they want to ignore, we should ask them questions that will lead them to seek the solutions themselves.

I do not have a list of such questions, nor a formula for how to generate them, but I have a few ideas of how we might.

Honey and Vinegar

How can a question convince its audience to seek answers? At the most basic level, by appealing to self-interest: suggesting benefits from finding the answer or threatening harm from failure to find it. We need to effectively appeal to both types of self-interest and therefore effectively use both types of question. Appeals to pleasure and advancement are effective when the subject’s desire outweighs the associated risks or costs, but fall short otherwise. Appeals to fear can dull decision-making but can produce incredible force of will. To urge people to care, we need to instill a sense of urgency (“Do you know who owns your location/browser history?”); to convince them to remain rational, we need to convince them that doing so serves their interests (“Do you want a law to say you own and can profit from your own data?”).

Intriguing > Amazing

Encoding information in questions is a must for our purposes, but the surplus of dramatic details about the status quo has overshadowed the virtues of simple and relatable ones. We want to form questions that will spur an audience to ask more—for this, accessibility proves more effective than impressionability. “Did you know that data is now the most valuable traded commodity in the world?”, is less a question than a statement, and one best directed at an already-receptive audience. “Did you know that apps on your phone make money by selling information about you?”, is a simple but genuine inquiry, and leads naturally to others, like “Which apps?” and “Who is buying?”


We need to develop more comprehensive yet catchy terminology to describe the details and stakes of the situation. The term “surveillance capitalism” is brilliant for both its reach and its brevity, describing an immensely complex system succinctly but completely. Cultivating such a vocabulary will allow us to form nuanced questions that can make strong impressions and spark curiosity with fewer words and in less time.

* * *

I have no all-purpose “answer” to the uber-question posed in the title, but I believe that asking provocative questions is a viable and specific next step. I intend to try it the next time a family member or friend asks me any version of the title.

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Webs Webs

r3 - 10 Jan 2024 - 20:53:03 - TheoTamayo
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