Dalton Delan | The Unspin Room: Beware four horsemen of digital apocalypse

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WESTPORT, Conn. — Move fast and break things," Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg famously advised five years ago. Last November, in the riptide of the election year, his slippery leviathan, commanding the seas of social media with a colossal 80 percent of usage in America, managed a bundle of breakage.

Facebook's general counsel admitted last week that 126 million Americans — nearly as many as vote — saw Russian-backed content before the election. CEO Sheryl Sandberg promised Congress deeper data, but she has yet to lean in about any geographical emphasis on swing states by Putin's shadow Mad Men.

According to accounts of her address to the Congressional Black Caucus, Sandberg "prayed daily" that Facebook hadn't help swing the election. We're going to need more than prayers to change the way we're headed. With its 2 billion users worldwide, Facebook is the `F' in the acronym `GAFA' with which Europeans refer to Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple — four horsemen of a digital apocalypse.

Google, the king of queries and by extension thought, handles 3.5 billion questions a day. It controls a mind-boggling nearly 90 percent of search advertising. Last year, the European Union slammed Google with a $2.7 billion fine based on anti-trust regulations and abusive market dominance.

Beware Alexa

The next letter, `A' for Amazon, queen of the retail river with 75 percent of e-book sales and half of all money spent online in the U.S., is now adding alarm-clock faces to its millions of Echo devices to move them into the bedroom. Before you snuggle up with Echo's Alexa at your bedside, zip your lip: Amazon stores on its servers every single command you give to your servile Alexa — not only that, it stores the seconds before, as well as anything sounding like a wake-up word. Unless you mute the device, it is always alert for commands. This year, a security company with brief access to an Echo — does anyone but you ever enter your home? — turned it into a remote listening device. Et tu, Alexa?

As for the golden Apple, which consumes a 40 percent share of mobile phones in the U.S., its shiny objects are sealed units — you can't change the battery; instead, you take your place on a replacement treadmill with a high hundred-dollar annual upsell. With GAFA astride the Monopoly board, the way we think, transact and communicate are all in the family. Welcome to the new world.

Four years ago — seems like a lifetime, doesn't it? — Julian Assange of WikiLeaks wrote: "The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we've ever seen civilization will be a postmodern surveillance dystopia." Worse still, despite his own highly controversial blows against the empire, Assange's crystal ball on the likelihood of escape from this dark vision is that it "will be impossible." Do we ride the monster, or does it ride us?

There are glimmers of resistance to the malign power of social media networks, especially in Europe. Starting last month, Germany began levying large fines on social networks that don't remove hate speech. In this, Germans have the history to know whereof they speak. In America, we're more conflicted about where the First Amendment ends and "shouting fire in a crowded theater" begins.

Weighing the impact of Big Tech in The New Yorker recently, Elizabeth Kolbert concluded: "People who worry about the fate of democracy still write (and read) books. Those who are determining it prefer to tweet."

Google tailors our searches to our history and those who pay to play. Amazon builds a shining palace brick by buying brick — the Equifax breach should give us sufficient pause. Facebook forces us to fish where like-minded or Russia-funded fish lay choice caviar. All are bites of the same poison Apple — we think we hold it in our hand, when it actually has a hold on us. Down the rabbit hole we go.

Prove Assange wrong

Thirty years ago, shape-shifter Michael Stipe of R.E.M. sang: "It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine." Spinning back the musical wheel to the fabulous '60s, the late great Phil Ochs, a journalist in troubadour disguise, sang: "Monopoly is so much fun, I'd hate to blow the game." The game isn't about real estate anymore, but the state of our very lives and our democracy.

What to do? Park your phone, frequent local retailers, buy a newspaper, talk with a neighbor, "friend" a friend over a kitchen coffee. If you don't want "Blade Runner 2049" and its transhuman replicants to come to your town before that, there isn't much time left to prove Assange's prophecy wrong.

Tell Alexa and Siri to Take Five, as Dave Brubeck, cool jazz master, would say. "There's no signature time like the present. I may be slow, but I'm still unbroken." Mark that.

Dalton Delan has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.     


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