Where could such critique begin? Consider what might, initially, seem like a bizarre parallel: climate change. For much of the 20th century, we assumed that our energy use was priced correctly and that it existed solely in the consumer paradigm of “I can use as much energy as I can pay for.” Under that paradigm, there was no ethics attached to our energy use: market logic has replaced morality – which is precisely what has enabled fast rates of economic growth and the proliferation of consumer devices that have made our households electronic paradises free from tiresome household work. But as we have discovered in the last decade, such thinking rested on a powerful illusion that our energy use was priced correctly – that we in fact paid our fair share. (Carbon credit trading scheme was meant to rectify this problem – before it collapsed.)
You cannot imagine the information disaster that easily
But of course we had never priced our energy use correctly because we never factored in the possibility that life on Earth might end even if we balance all of our financial statements. So now your decision what car to drive or how much light to have in your living room is no longer a decision affected solely by your ability to pay for electricity; it’s also an ethical decision that each of us makes for ourselves (apparently, not very effectively). The point is that, partly due to successful campaigns by the environmental movement, a set of purely rational, market-based decisions have suddenly acquired political latency, which has given us differently designed cars, lights that go off if no one is in the room, and so forth. It has also produced citizens who – at least in theory – are encouraged to think of implications that extend far beyond the ability to pay their electricity bill.
Now, this might seem like an odd parallel to draw to information sharing but it’s actually not that outlandish. Right now, your decision to buy a smart toothbrush with a sensor in it – and then to sell the data that it generates – is presented to us as just a purely commercial decision that affects no one but us. But this is so only because we cannot imagine an information disaster as easily as we can imagine an environmental disaster. We have become very bad dystopians – and our technophilic intellectuals, in love with Silicon Valley and buzzwords like “innovation,” are partly to blame. But that the disaster is slow and doesn’t lend itself to vivid visualizations doesn’t make it less of a disaster!
Political and moral consequences to information consumerism
What we need is a sharper, starker picture of the information apocalypse that awaits us in a world where personal data is traded like coffee or any other commodity. Take the oft-repeated argument about the benefits of trading one’s data in exchange for some tangible commercial benefit. Say, for example, you install a sensor in your car to prove to your insurance company that you are driving much safer than the average driver that figures in their model for pricing insurance policies. Great: if you are better than the average, you get to pay less. But the problem with averages is that half of the population is always worse than the benchmark. Inevitably –regardless of whether they want to monitor themselves or not – that other half will be forced to pay more, for as the more successful of us take on self-tracking, most social institutions would (quite logically) assume that those who refuse to self-track have something to hide. Under this model, the implications of my decision to trade my personal data are no longer solely in the realm of markets and economics – they are also in the realm of ethics. If my decision to share my personal data for a quick buck makes someone else worse off and deprives them of opportunities, then I have an extra ethical factor to consider – economics alone doesn’t suffice.