future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development, entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the fast stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: ‘Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.’”
—Max Weber, 1905
On November 12 Facebook, Inc. filed its 178th patent application for a consumer profiling technique the company calls “inferring household income for users of a social networking system.”
“The amount of information gathered from users,” explain Facebook programmers Justin Voskuhl and Ramesh Vyaghrapuri in their patent application, “is staggering — information describing recent moves to a new city, graduations, births, engagements, marriages, and the like.” Facebook and other so-called tech companies have been warehousing all of this information since their respective inceptions. In Facebook’s case, its data vault includes information posted as early as 2004, when the site first went live. Now in a single month the amount of information forever recorded by Facebook —dinner plans, vacation destinations, emotional states, sexual activity, political views, etc.— far surpasses what was recorded during the company’s first several years of operation. And while no one outside of the company knows for certain, it is believed that Facebook has amassed one of the widest and deepest databases in history. Facebook has over 1,189,000,000 “monthly active users” around the world as of October 2013, providing considerable width of data. And Facebook has stored away trillions and trillions of missives and images, and logged other data about the lives of this billion plus statistical sample of humanity. Adjusting for bogus or duplicate accounts it all adds up to about 1/7th of humanity from which some kind of data has been recorded.
According to Facebook’s programmers like Voskuhl and Vyaghrapuri, of all the clever uses they have already applied this pile of data toward, Facebook has so far “lacked tools to synthesize this information about users for targeting advertisements based on their perceived income.” Now they have such a tool thanks to the retention and analysis of variable the company’s positivist specialists believe are correlated with income levels.
They’ll have many more tools within the next year to run similar predictions. Indeed, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and the hundreds of smaller tech lesser-known tech firms that now control the main portals of social, economic, and political life on the web (which is now to say everywhere as all economic and much social activity is made cyber) are only getting started. The Big Data analytics revolutions has barely begun, and these firms are just beginning to tinker with rational-instrumental methods of predicting and manipulating human behavior.
There are few, if any, government regulations restricting their imaginations at this point. Indeed, the U.S. President himself is a true believer in Big Data; the brain of Obama’s election team was a now famous “cave” filled with young Ivy League men (and a few women) sucking up electioneering information and crunching demographic and consumer data to target individual voters with appeals timed to maximize the probability of a vote for the new Big Blue, not IBM, but the Democratic Party’s candidate of “Hope” and “Change.” The halls of power are enraptured by the potential of rational-instrumental methods paired with unprecedented access to data that describes the social lives of hundreds of millions.
Facebook’s intellectual property portfolio reads like cliff notes summarizing the aspirations of all corporations in capitalist modernity; to optimize efficiency in order to maximize profits and reduce or externalize risk. Unlike most other corporations, and unlike previous phases in the development of rational bureaucracies, Facebook and its tech peers have accumulated never before seen quantities of information about individuals and groups. Recent breakthroughs in networked computing make analysis of these gigantic data sets fast and cheap. Facebook’s patent holdings are just a taste of what’s arriving here and now.