Information Consumerism : The Price of Hypocrisy

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Laws won’t be of much help

As our gadgets and previously analog objects become “smart,” this Gmail model will spread everywhere. One set of business models will supply us with gadgets and objects that will either be free or be priced at a fraction of their real cost. In other words, you get your smart toothbrush for free – but, in exchange, you allow it to collect data on how you use the toothbrush. It’s this data that will eventually finance the cost of the toothbrush. Or, for objects with screens or speakers, you might see or hear a personalized ad based on your use of the device – and it’s the ad that will underwrite the cost. This, for example, is the model that Amazon is already pursuing with its Kindle ereaders: if you want a cheaper model, you simply accept to see advertising on their screens. Amazon’s ultimate Faustian bargain would be to offer us a free ereader along with free and instantaneous access to all of the world’s books on one condition: we will agree to let it analyze everything we read and serve us ads accordingly.

(A yawn rewarded with a coffee: Douwe Egberts is proud of its using facial recognition)

Under a slightly modified model – which is already available through various start-ups known as “personal data lockers” – you can actually make money off that data by selling it yourself – and not just from the toothbrush but from across any smart object that you interact with: your car, your desk, your trashbin. One start-up – Miinome – even allows you to make money by putting up your genetic code online; whenever a third-party company accesses it – perhaps, to customize advertising or to use it in some Big Data experiment – you get a small payment. Essentially, the ability to insert a sensor and an Internet connection into everything, including our body, makes it possible to commodify everything and to attach a price on the information generated in the context of its use. Sensors and ubiquitous connectivity help to create new, liquid markets in such information, allowing citizens to monetize self-surveillance.

If this is, indeed, the future that we are heading towards, it’s obvious that laws won’t be of much help, as citizens would voluntarily opt for such transactions – the way we already opt for free (but monitorable) email and cheaper (but advertising-funded) ereaders. Spies from the NSA will have two options: they can either go and ask data from companies that build all these smart objects – from smart shoes to smart toothbrushes – or they can buy it in the open market – as this data would eventually be traded – by us, citizens. In short, what is now collected through subpoenas and court orders could be collected entirely through commercial transactions alone.

Market logic has replaced morality

Policymakers who think that laws can stop this commodificaton of information are deluding themselves. Such commodification is not happening against the wishes of ordinary citizens but because this is what ordinary citizen-consumer want. Look no further than Google’s email and Amazon’s Kindle to see that no one is forced to use them: people do it willingly. Forget laws: it’s only through political activism and a robust intellectual critique of the very ideology of “information consumerism” that underpins such aspirations that we would be able to avert the inevitable disaster.

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