The Internet and Information-Suction Engines
Thoughts provoked by the flotation of facebook

(DRAFT: Liable to change)

Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham.
(Philosopher in a Computer Science department)

Installed: 20 May 2012
Last updated: 30 May 2012; 12 Sep 2012; 19 Sep 2013 (Register article)

This paper is
A PDF version may be added later.

A partial index of discussion notes is in

What to think about the flotation of Facebook

[Some thoughts about the Facebook float and information-suction engines: the
powerful new privacy invaders.]

Facebook had an initial public offering on the Nasdaq stock exchange on
19th May 2012, at an astounding price of $104 billion dollars. See

This is a modified version of my response to a comment about the facebook
flotation posted on the ComputingAtSchool discussion forum:

I've been pondering this since the float was announced.

Two to three decades ago (even before the world wide web) it became clear that
the internet had the potential to be the most powerful educational, communal
learning and teaching, mutually supporting, human connecting tool ever
developed. To some extent that potential has been realised, thanks to Tim
Berners-Lee and others, and is still being extended (witness the excellent
online courses and teaching materials on computing, mathematics, biology,
philosophy, and much else). [Note 1]

But the dark side is the role of the internet as a host for powerful suction
machines, offering to meet the needs of users, and in the process transferring
large amounts of personal information and personal wealth (mostly in myriad
small dollops) to vendors of large amounts of junk and allegedly"must-have"
items, in addition to vendors of useful life-supporting or life-enriching goods;
while rewarding the consumers of junk with the spurious gratification of
"keeping up", "keeping in touch", new shinier toys, and micro-nuggets of fame,
or in some cases just the empty promise of fame -- all alongside some truly
useful services. (I appreciate that 'junk' is a loaded and debatable label. On
another day I'll try to suggest objective criteria for junk-hood.)[Note 2]

The charges levied by the suction engines per transaction are minute, but so
many of the charges are channelled through a small number of those engines that
they add up to many billions of dollars divided between a few giants fighting to
keep their users by providing new services which are not only useful to their
users (you and me) but but also increase their own suction power, in comparison
with rivals (e.g. facebook).

Google is outstanding at doing both. It oozes value at both ends, like nectar
and pollen truly serving bees and other pollinators. I've benefited a lot from
it, despite my growing concerns about what it is trying to do to me in order to
pay for the services it gives me free of charge.

I don't know much about facebook, but I expect all the same issues arise: it
provides something people want, or think they want, and in return takes
information which, after appropriate transmogrification, it can sell to others,
or use to help others sell their wares.

For example: At one time google rated each web site on the basis of other web
sites referring to it. Now every time you click on the output of the search
engine, your selection is noted by google -- sucking another tiny fragment of
information: helping them help you in future, but also adding to their power to
deliver information to their paying customers who want your money, or or your
attention, or... Your personal details don't need to be passed on for that to
work. Meanwhile, they have your details, and will still have them if ever their
management changes, with new ethics.

And typically the people you choose to buy from also get some of your details,
which may be more valuable to them than the product you've paid for is to you.

While the number of internet users with money to spend continues growing, the
space for highly profitable giant suction engines grows, enabling them all to do
ever more matching of customers and providers.

During such growth, the development of yet another suction machine just means
that larger rewards from more users are shared between more information-suckers.

Limits to growth?
However, as the growth in number of users world wide, especially users with
money to spend, flattens out, the advent of a new, powerful, information-sucker
able to attract paying vendors to its suction power, will reduce the rewards
available to the older suction engines.

Sometimes that change can be handled by an old one consuming a newer one (e.g.
google buying youtube?).

But not always: no existing giant managed to buy facebook. And facebook may not
be able to buy the next young giant successful information-sucker. Humans, the
witting and unwitting information providers, are notoriously susceptible to new

Draw your own conclusions about the real value of facebook shares.

Maybe things will change. When the uses of labels like "must have" "must see",
"must read" as adjectives drop out of our language, and the use of complete
grammatical sentences returns, that may be an indicator that we have begun to
extricate ourselves from the mind-numbing gunk that flows in and out of the
suction-engines, via the mutually rewarding/titillating (not only sexually
titillating) interfaces they provide. If we start to escape the grip of vendors
of attention-grabbing products the information-sucking engines will start to

I can't help feeling it would be better for us simply to pay more for services
and give away less information. Then we'll be targeted less by successful
advertisements, and overall spend less.

Perhaps more people will then discuss philosophy, study mathematics, play
outdoor games, play music, compose poetry, talk to their children, read books,
write books, grow vegetables, cook real food, study computer science, take up
orienteering, and/or have serious email discussions that would have been
impossible without the internet.

Nothing could have persuaded me to use any savings to buy shares in Facebook,
even if some clever, or lucky, fast moving, well-resourced speculators manage to
make money out of the short term fluctuations, at the expense of -- guess who?

Feel free to pass this on to Mark Zuckerberg, if you are one of his buddies.

Does anyone teach CS or ICT students about information-suction power? I could
not find that phrase via google. Presumably there's another label for it.[Note3]


Update: An article in The Register

This is very relevant
    Forget tax bills, here's how Google is really taking us all for a ride
    What's that saying about knowing the price of everything?
    By Andrew Orlowski, 28th May 2013


I have learnt much about these issues from colleagues in The School of Computer Science
especially Mark Ryan, whose professorial inaugural lecture is here:

Maintained by Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science
The University of Birmingham