Ten years ago, big technology companies such as Facebook and Amazon were considerably smaller, and they were greatly embraced by their users. After all, the internet has truly matured and its impact are finally being felt by everyday consumer. Great services and exciting technologies that enable people to potentially live longer (e-commerce: saves time; social media: promote relationships) fueled the rise of these companies. In the span of eight years, FAANG stocks outperformed the broader financial market (SPX), and four of them (excluding Netflix) currently hold spots in the top 10 largest U.S. companies by market capitalization.
*Netflix is not included in the chart because it appreciated 3,800% over the same time period.
Fast forward to 2020, and we see that these companies are no longer the underdogs. As much as they try to keep the startup vibe, they’re objectively not. People are becoming more aware -especially in the last five years- that these are literally the world’s largest companies with bigger balance sheets than some smaller nations and superior technological prowess at their disposals. As a result, big technology companies have been through a lot more scrutiny in recent years — Mark Zuckerberg’s senate hearing for FB’s data breach, criticisms of Jeff Bezos surrounding Amazon’s treatment of its workers, and many more. It is fair for these companies to receive tough challenges and criticisms given the scale of influence and power that they have. It is also inspiring to see that people around the world are becoming more technologically aware of their personal data and how it can be used carelessly.
“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”— HARVEY DENT
However, when we look to the East, things have been way crazier.
China’s Big Data
The topic of balancing big data and our privacy/civil liberty has always been a controversial one, with extremely intelligent people often taking opposing views. In China, due to its government’s total control, there has never been a real issue surrounding this topic.
To help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, China utilized a combination of big data (ML, AI, etc.) to conduct massive surveillance of its citizens, especially in high risk areas. Examples of its practices include using face recognition data and mobile GPS to track specific movements of people that have been tested positive. This information is then dispersed instantly through various social means (text message, social media). They also created a mobile app that will automatically notify a person if he/she was in close contact with any person that’s tested positive. Drones and CCTV cameras were used to actively monitor people’s movements when they need to be in quarantine.
Chamath Palihapitiya recently spoke about his strategy if he’s to handle this pandemic on a podcast; the gist is to conduct mass testing and then classify each individual with different colors of wrist bands, allowing them a certain degree of freedom based on their conditions (positive asymptomatic, recovered, positive mild, etc.). Obviously, while this strategy is great and it will enable the economy to start running again, it is definitely NOT achievable without utilizing massive amounts of personal data that most westerners aren’t comfortable with.
Big Data Post COVID-19
I believe that the aftermath of COVID-19 will make people more comfortable with the idea of sacrificing their privacy for convenience, health, security, and competent government surveillance during unprecedented times.
The key here lies with the regulators.
How can we implement a system that can ensure responsible management of these data while also giving future Presidents the power to override it during special circumstances.
Sadly, democracy is slow, and communism is fast — but that’s a topic for another time.
“It doesn’t look like anything to me”
Note: Minor Westworld S3 spoiler below
I have been watching Westworld season 3.
IMO, it is without a doubt, the most underrated show out there. 10/10 recommend.
The narrative and intellectual plot twists combined with the fact that it is touching on an issue that’s eerily close to home (big data and technology) provide great weekly episode that not only entertaining, but also thought provoking (no, I’m not sponsored).
In season 3, there’s an entity called “Rehoboam”, a machine; more specifically, a super computer (perhaps quantum? — the timeline is set in 2050s) that was fed with all of the world’s data, turning into the greatest artificial intelligence with excellent predictive analytics capability.
Here’s an explanation of what it does from CBR:
But it's not just the ugly details past that has in its records. By taking every action of each person on Earth and feeding all of them into a single processing unit, Incite's program can use algorithms to play out the most likely path for each life born into this world. But it doesn't just predict the future, it also then makes choices on who it deems will live lives worthy of promise. Those children it deems to have potential as promoted, given breaks, pushed forward. Those it deems not worth the time, energy, or money are pushed down.
In short, Rehoboam turns its predictions into self-fulfilling prophecies. If a person is deemed to have potential, they will magically find the roadblocks part for them to reach it, but someone like Caleb does not. His inability to land a good job isn't because he's not capable or smart or poised for it. Rehoboam has decided his mother's mental illness, his PTSD from the army and his general life trajectory means he'll commit suicide in a decade, so there's no reason for him to be hired, for him to have a relationship.
If you didn’t really care about your personal data, hopefully this week’s piece and Westworld can provide you fresh outlook on the issue.
See you next week.