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Book summary: El enemigo conoce el sistema

This is the first part of my summary for the book “El enemigo conoce el sistema” (“The enemy knows the system”) by Marta Peirano. It’s a Spanish book about power, manipulation, and the internet.

This post will cover the main ideas in the book (translated to English). They are reordered and grouped in headings, for easier scanning and to make them easier to understand in context. See the list of ideas in the original Spanish. Upcoming posts will cover my full notes of the book, also in the original language.

Ideas

The current dystopia and social media

  • We would rather believe we don’t have willpower and we don’t know how to eat properly, than believe that the food industry (one of the most powerful on the planet) keeps a team of geniuses with a single goal: manipulate us. The same thing happens with mobile phones and the internet.
  • The industry is an expert in detecting, magnifying, and producing the emotions that give them the most benefit: indignation, fear, fury, absent-mindedness, loneliness, competition, envy. This is the banality of evil of our times: the best minds in our generation are looking for ways to get more likes.
  • Today’s dystopia has been created almost by accident by a small group of companies to make us buy products and click on ads. Its power isn’t based on violence but something far more insidious: our infinite capacity to get distracted.

Technology to fight evil

  • A universal truth about solution-oriented technical people is that they can be so focused on the given task that they are unable to gauge the social impact of their solutions until it is too late.
  • Debates about good or evil in companies are a distraction. The executives change or are fired or lie or are tied by laws and governments that change or lie. The only relevant question is whether they develop technologies capable of censoring, limiting civil liberties or betray the users’ trust. If they do, that’s always a problem regardless of their intention.
  • All technology developed to fight terrorism in other countries ends up being part of the national surveillance apparatus.
  • Industrial revolutions always bring an optimistic vision of the capabilities of technology which can be summarised in two fantasies: we can finally make the perfect decisions, and technological implementations are intrinsically better than the human ones.

Social customs

  • Companies use algorithms to calculate the highest prices a person is willing to pay, according to the person and the circumstances. This is especially troublesome in times of crisis.
  • When customers are illegally discriminated, companies simply point at the algorithm (mathwashing). This allows discrimination because it is impossible to know how the algorithm made the decision.
  • There is less and less interest and capacity to identify new habits because each technology or product takes less time to take over a society, and thus we have less and less time to do so.
  • The slot machine addict knows that they are addicted to the dream state that the rhythm of the machine provides. They don’t play to earn money but to float in the Zone, while the addict to the rhythmical and fragmented sequence of digital platforms believes they are addicted to politics or news. They believe they are more awake than ever.

Bubbles

  • Digital platforms are a different mass medium than radio or TV because they can choose its audience. It allows telling each group exactly what they want to hear, without others knowing.
  • The famous ‘filter bubble’ is not the voluntary confinement of the user away from information sources that contradict their worldview, it is part of an ad model that generates a worldview specifically and deliberately designed for each person, but that makes the person believe it is “the truth”. Those who read Twitter and Facebook do so as if these sites were a newspaper with a slight spin towards the topics the user finds interesting. They don’t read it as if it was content designed and tailored to them by marketing companies and political campaigns.
  • Even people who have been manipulated with racist, classist, misogynistic or even fascist arguments need to know that they were manipulated to vote against their own interests. Especially because this phenomenon keeps repeating itself every time there are elections anywhere in the world.

Propaganda y populism

  • Populist strategies are deliberately designed to strip an educated society of its intellectual and spiritual resources, turning the population into cynics or children, depending on the ego and stamina of each person.
  • The main difference between propaganda and disinformation is that the latter makes up the message, which is designed to trick, frighten, confuse and manipulate the target, while the first simply uses media in ethnically dubious ways to convince of something. Disinformation is based on manipulated photos and documents, fabricated data and out-of-context material to create a distorted or alternative view of reality. Disinformation campaigns start by identifying already-existing cracks in society to exploit them and take them to extremes.

Conclusion

If you can read Spanish, I strongly recommend this book. It doesn’t necessarily say a lot of new things if you are as obsessed as me about privacy and such, but it does an excellent job putting things into context and making a summary of how we got here, the current situation, and the problems we face.