24 August 2014
Evgeny Morozov: How much for your data?
Date: Sat, 23 Aug 2014 15:37:32 +0200
From: "Patrice Riemens" <patrice[at]xs4all.nl>
Subject: <nettime> Evgeny Morozov: How much for your data? (LMD)
From Le Monde Diplomatique English Edition, August 2014.
What you whistle in the shower
How much for your data?
Rapacious financialisation risks turning everything we are and have into
a productive asset. And the foremost asset is our personal data, mined by
by Evgeny Morozov
Oral-B, a Procter & Gamble company, this year launched its SmartSeries
Bluetooth toothbrush an essential appliance for what the firm calls
the well-connected bathroom. It connects to your smartphone,
where its app tracks brushing tasks (have you flossed? cleaned the tongue?
rinsed?) and highlights areas of the mouth (visualised on the phone screen)
that deserve more attention. More importantly, as the toothbrushs website
proudly announces, it also records brushing activity as data that you
can chart on your own and share with dental professionals. What happens
to that data whether it goes to these dental professionals, or your
insurance company, stays with you or is appended to your data already owned
by Facebook and Google is a controversial question.
The realisation that data produced by everyday appliances, smart toothbrushes
or smart toilets, can be monetised has produced an interesting resistance
against the data-hoarding attitudes of Silicon Valley giants, who mint billions
while we only get free services. A populist critique has emerged: lets
challenge these data monopolies and replace them with small-scale entrepreneurs.
Each of us can become a freelance data stockbroker with our own portfolio
selling access to our genome if a pharmaceutical company needs it,
or disclosing our location for a discount at a local restaurant.
Several recent books Social Physics by Sandy Pentland, Who
Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier (1) endorse this agenda. They
promise the seemingly impossible economic security and a future of
privacy. If data is treated as property, strong property rights and modern
enforcement technologies should ensure that no third party gets a free ride.
Thanks to the Internet of Things and the proliferation of smart devices,
our every act can be observed, and monetised: theres someone, somewhere,
willing to pay for knowing what song we whistle in the shower. The only reason
it hasnt happened yet is because our shower doesnt have sensors
and isnt connected to the net.
The battle lines are clear. If Google fills our houses with smart thermostats
like Nest, then Google will monetise our shower whistling. Google integrates
data from different streams self-driving cars, smart glasses, email
and its helpfulness is a function of its ubiquity. To get the best
from it, we should let Googles services fill in all the vacant areas
of our digitised everyday existence. The size of Googles data reservoirs
makes competition unrealistic, a point not lost on smaller companies. The
other option is to follow the populist calls of Pentland and Lanier and thwart
Googles ambitions by insisting that data automatically belongs to the
users, or demanding that they at least share in Googles profits.
Both of these positions, for all their apparent differences, belong to one
political programme, representing two intellectual traditions. As the British
sociologist Will Davies shows in his new book, The Limits of
Neoliberalism (2), the future offered to us by Lanier and Pentland fits
into the German ordoliberal tradition, which sees the preservation
of market competition as a moral project, and treats all monopolies as dangerous.
The Google approach fits better with the American school of neoliberalism
that developed at the University of Chicago. Its adherents are mostly focused
on efficiency and consumer welfare, not morality; and monopolies are never
assumed to be evil just because they are monopolies some might be
socially beneficial. For all its claims to innovation and disruption, the
contemporary technology debate neither innovates nor disrupts: in assuming
that information is a commodity, it operates firmly within a sole neoliberal
Deus ex machina
While an alternative view of information would require grounding it in the
non-economic realm around the idea of the common, beloved by radical
democrats, or something else we might ask why the commodity status
of information is accepted so uncritically. The current moment provides the
answer: technology today is a deus ex machina, which can create jobs, stimulate
the economy, and make up for taxes lost to the offshoring schemes of wealthy
elites and corporations. Not to treat information as a commodity would mean
closing the only untainted avenue open to policymakers.
This deus ex machina aspect of modern technology is poorly understood, even
by perceptive observers of the financial crisis. In his 2013 book Buying
Time (3), the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck argues that, from the
early 1970s, when the first signs showed of the impending collapse of the
welfare model secured by the post-war compromise, western governments used
tricks to buy more time and avoid overdue structural transformations: rampant
inflation, public debt and, eventually, tacit encouragement of the private
sector to provide cheap debt to households. The austerity agenda that followed
was a moralistic response that punished ordinary citizens for sins they
Streeck does not mention information technology but its time-buying function
is obvious. It produces new, entrepreneurial jobs once everyone learns
how to code and build their own apps and unlocks immense economic
value. The British government grasped this early on, embarking on ambitious,
if controversial, schemes to sell patient data to insurance companies (popular
protest forced a backtrack) and student admissions data to mobile operators
and energy drink companies. A recent report on personal data and the British
economy, supported in part by Vodafone (4), holds that more than £16.5bn
could be made if it were easier for consumers to manage sell
their personal data. The governments task is to ensure that new data
management intermediaries can legally insert themselves between consumers
and service providers.
These government-led efforts to buy time from above are supplemented by efforts
mostly by Silicon Valley start-ups to buy time from below.
The hope is that services like Uber (for cars) and Airbnb (for apartments)
can turn analogue assets into profitable services, supplementing their
owners income. As Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, puts it, Now with
record unemployment, massive income equality, we actually have this gold
mine under our feet. It used to be [that] we lived in a world where people
created their own content, but now we can now create our own jobs and maybe
even our own industries (5). Indeed.
The sharing economy
Silicon Valley, always quick to capitalise on counterculture, appropriated
the communal gift-oriented rhetoric of earlier efforts to transcend the
neoliberal agenda, presenting start-ups like Uber and Airbnb as part of the
sharing economy the utopian future beloved by anarchists
and libertarians, where individuals can deal with each other directly, bypassing
large intermediaries. What we are witnessing, however, is the replacement
of service intermediaries, like taxi companies, with information intermediaries
like Uber which is backed by those admirers of anarchy, Goldman Sachs.
Since established taxi and hotel industries are detested, the public debate
has been framed as a brave innovator taking on sluggish, monopolistic incumbents.
Such skewed presentation, while not inaccurate in all cases, glosses over
the fact that the start-ups of the sharing economy operate on
the pre-welfare model: social protections for workers are minimal, they have
to take on risks previously assumed by their employers, and there are almost
no possibilities for collective bargaining.
The proponents of the sharing economy justify such precariousness
with rhetoric worthy of Friedrich Hayek: once we replace laws with feedback
mechanisms so the market attests to the quality of the driver or the
host we can dispense with pre-emptive regulation. As Fred Wilson,
a prominent venture capitalist, put it recently, when we reach a place
where systems are truly self-governing and self-regulating, we will not need
regulators (6). Ubiquitous feedback loops in reality, just quality
signals provided by market participants would get us there.
The digitisation of everyday life and the rapaciousness of financialisation
risk turning everything genome to bedroom into a productive
asset. As Esther Dyson, a board member of 23andme, the leader in personalised
genomics, said the company is like the ATM that gives you access to
the wealth locked within your genes (7). This is the future that Silicon
Valley expects us to embrace: given enough sensors and net connections, our
entire life becomes a giant ATM. Those refusing this would have only themselves
to blame. Opting out from the sharing economy would come to be
seen as economic sabotage and wasteful squandering of precious resources
that could accelerate growth. Eventually, the refusal to share
becomes tinged with as much guilt as the refusal to save or work or pay debts,
with a veneer of morality covering up once again exploitation.
Goldmine under our feet
Its only natural that the less fortunate, under the burden of austerity,
are turning their kitchens into restaurants, their cars into taxis, and their
personal data into financial assets. What else can they do? For Silicon Valley,
this is a triumph of entrepreneurship a spontaneous technological
development, unrelated to the financial crisis. But it is only as entrepreneurial
as those who are driven by the need to pay rent into prostitution
or selling their body parts. Governments might resist this tide but they
have budgets to balance: Uber and Airbnb will eventually be allowed to exploit
this gold mine as they please, boosting tax revenues and helping
citizens make ends meet.
The sharing economy wont supplant the debt economy; they
will coexist. The increased liquidity of data, combined with more and better
tools of analysis, already allows banks to tap the techniques of Big Data
to extend credit to unbankables while identifying and excluding
the true deviants. This would only raise anxiety over debt. Start-ups like
ZestFinance, which studies 70,000 data points including how you type
and how you use your phone already help banks decide whether online
applicants are worthy of a loan. A scheme pioneered in Colombia by Lenddo,
another tech-savvy lending start-up, links the approval of credit cards to
applicants activity on social media, so now their every click can affect
their suitability for credit a point not lost on Douglas Merrill,
the co-founder of ZestFinance, who says that all data is credit
data. Well, if all data is credit data, then all life captured
by digital sensors in the world around us beats to the rhythms of
The useful idiots in Silicon Valley have their usual defence. If the poor
ask for credit, why not help them get it? That an increased demand for loans
might have something to do with unemployment, cuts in social services and
a collapse of real wages, and that a different economic policy might reverse
such trends, making payday loans and the Big Data tools for extending
them less relevant, is beyond the imagination of the digital futurists
in Silicon Valley. Their only task is to build tools for solving problems
as they come and not as political and economic critique might re-imagine
In this, Silicon Valley is like any other industry: unless theres profit
in it, corporations wont call for radical social change. However, the
rhetorical reservoir available to Uber, Google or Airbnb is much deeper than
that of Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan. If you complain about them, you will
be described as a hater of capitalism or Wall Street or the bailouts
a socially acceptable, if somewhat tiresome, critique. To criticise Silicon
Valley, however, is to invite accusations of technophobia and nostalgia.
A political and economic critique of technology companies and their
cosy relationship with the neoliberal agenda is recast as a cultural
critique of modernity. Critics are presented as retrogrades, staring in disgust
at soul-crushing dams.
Some technology critics, with their laments of cultural decline enabled by
Twitter and e-books, are partly to blame. Instead of engaging with attention
and distraction socio-economically as was done with earlier media
by Walter Benjamin and Sigfried Kracauer we get Nicholas Carr, with
his embrace of neuroscience, or Douglas Rushkoff, with his biophysiological
critique of acceleration (8). Whatever the salience of such interventions,
they end up decoupling the technological from the economic, so that we end
up debating how the screens of our iPads condition the cognition of our brains
instead of debating how the information gathered by our iPhones conditions
the austerity measures of our governments. To be critical of technology today
should mean questioning how it and its boosters let the current system buy
more time, and stave off an even more existential crisis.
Evgeny Morozov is the author of To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology,
Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems that Dont Exist, Allen
Lane, London, 2013
(1) Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future?, Allen Lane, London, 2013,
and Alex (Sandy) Pentland, Social Physics: How Good Ideas
Spread the Lessons from a New Science, Penguin Press, New York,
(2) William Davies, The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty
and the Logic of Competition, Sage, London, 2014.
(3) Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: the Delayed Crisis of Democratic
Capitalism, Verso, London, 2014, and Markets now rule the world,
Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, January 2012.
(4) Personal information management services: An analysis of an emerging
market Understanding the impacts on UK businesses and the economy,
16 June 2014.
(5) Quoted by Rebecca Chao, How the Internet saves at #PDF14,
6 June 2014; techpresident.comchpresident.com
(6) Quoted by Ann Babe, Writing the rules of the sharing economy,
Techonomy.com; 6 June 2014.
(7) 23andMe... and me: Interview with Esther Dyson, 7 December
(8) See Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now,
Penguin, New York, 2013.
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