‘Walled Garden’ or ‘Secret Garden’?
An examination of technology companies and their information control.
By Adrian Lam.
What is a ‘walled garden’? These days it’s not just an enclosed space to protect plants from wind or frost. In the technological sense, a walled garden, or closed platform or closed ecosystem, describes a closed, hierarchical, and centralised database under the control of a major technology company, (service provider). Such a company has control over its software system – its websites, applications, content and/or media and restricts access to non-approved applicants and non-approved content.
According to ‘Investopedia’ blogger Jason Fernando, there are five prominent American technology companies that operate from a walled garden and dominate the digital technology market. These are Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google, (FAANG). (Fernando, 2021).
These walled gardens ‘trap’ their users within their walls. Users do not know the content outside the walled garden. The garden owners control how the audience uses the content, the contents are tied to the garden, and web search engines cannot index the content of other walled gardens.
There are lots of examples in our daily digital life that involve walled gardens. For example, watching Netflix movies. The Netflix content that its subscribers/users watch in America is different from that in Australia. The USA’s population is almost thirteen times greater than Australia’s. Netflix USA makes much more profit than Netflix Australia, so offers greater and more diverse content to its users.
However, regardless of the country of operation, Netflix offers personally tailored content to its users, even within the same household, (within the limitations of its available catalogue). ‘Who’s Watching?’ is the question that first appears on Netflix screens. From the user’s previous viewing, Netflix develops an individual user profile. It offers, and even recommends from its catalogue, content based on the personal data collected.
Netflix offers broad content in accordance with popular taste. The user’s choices are curated and centralised and viewing options offered. But this stylised system can result in the user ‘losing content’ too. If the user continually watches action or romantic movies, then under the ‘Who’s Watching?’ system, the carrier will only offer these as viewing options. Users may miss out on other creative content because the ‘walled garden’ didn’t recommend alternative content to the user.
This a disadvantage that the movie industry faces because more content will be presented via providers like Netflix and Disney+. The audience, rather than consuming content via the traditional cinema, (often owned by motion picture production companies), and which can be expensive family entertainment, may instead take the cheaper option and subscribe to one, (or several), internet television network(s). However, when people rely on Netflix and Disney+ for their film and TV series entertainment, the walled garden means they will miss out on the contents that didn’t get uploaded onto those internet television networks.
This narrow selection contributes to the creation of a passive audience. Alternative information which may challenge our ideas and confront us with social justice issues, usually via the art-house and documentary feature genres, may be omitted from the possibility of selection or else have limited offering via these providers, because they are not the popular choice. Ultimately these providers are in business to make money and offering the popular choice means more profit.
Due to this business model, the films and TV series of less popular genres are in danger of disappearing. It is already difficult to access some of the great black and white movies of Hollywood’s ‘golden age’ and many foreign films because there is supposedly little or no demand for them. They are absent from most streaming services, or else must be individually rented from some – not an ideal economic option. Due to this, the history of film as an art form and as an important information source is already being ‘lost’ to an entire generation.
Nintendo Switch is also a good example of a walled garden. Nintendo has a vast collection of different games, selected of course by the garden owner. Nintendo’s users access this games library, usually containing modern games. These are the games that can only be played on Nintendo devices. (Nintendo doesn’t want users playing these games on computers or other devices.) We are in danger of losing traditional games like Super Mario Bros. It will be forgotten because Nintendo doesn’t recommend it to its users. It will be rare in the second-hand market too, as these older games have a finite life span.
Other than trapping users within the ‘walls’ by controlling information, garden owners gather personal user data through the surveillance of information flows. Information in the garden can be hidden and removed anytime by the garden owner. Users also add value to the garden. The more the platform knows about you, the more valuable your data becomes and the more the garden owner wants to keep it for its own profit-making purposes. It can also sell this information to other companies for their marketing and advertising purposes.
This has been termed surveillance capitalism. Surveillance capitalism is a system centred around personal data for the core purpose of profit-making. According to The Guardian Australia’s journalist McKenzie Wark, we pay Google a sort of information tax. If you want some data, you must give up some, about who you are, what you do, what your movements are. Like most of other states, Google will then sell access to you to other interested parties. We are not really its citizen but its peons. We always owe a debt of information to Google, no matter how much of it we have already given up. (Wark, 2013).
According to Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff, surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. This is fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’ and then fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what users will be now, soon, and in the future. (Zuboff, 2018).
So, Netflix’s supposedly innocent on-screen question, ‘Who’s watching?’, might well be translated into, ‘Who’s watching who?’, from within the walled garden. These walled gardens and their garden owners collect our personal data, store it, guard it, use it and sell it for profit. In the motion picture genre, they offer a restricted menu of services which contribute to an ill-informed society, anaesthetised by mediocre offerings that usually entertain without stimulating thought. When we consider their ‘business model’ reason for existence, their covert operations, and their appeal to vested capitalist interests, they should perhaps be renamed the ‘secret gardens’.
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