Sun, May 03, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Facebook is not a charity — poor will pay by surrendering data

By Evgeny Morozov  /  The Observer

Luxury is already here — it is just not very evenly distributed. Such, at any rate, is the provocative argument put forward by Google chief economist Hal Varian. Recently dubbed “the Varian rule,” it states that to predict the future, we just have to look at what rich people already have and assume that the middle classes will have it in five years and poor people will have it in 10. Radio, TV, dishwashers, mobile phones, flatscreen TVs: Varian sees this principle at work in the history of many technologies.

So what is it that the rich have today that the poor will get in a decade? Varian bets on personal assistants. Instead of maids and chauffeurs we would have self-driving cars, housecleaning robots and clever, omniscient apps that can monitor, inform and nudge us in real time.

As Varian puts it: “These digital assistants will be so useful that everyone will want one and the scare stories you read today about privacy concerns will just seem quaint and old-fashioned.” Google Now, one such assistant, can monitor our e-mails, searches and locations and constantly remind us about forthcoming meetings or trips, all while patiently checking real-time weather and traffic in the background.

Varian’s juxtaposition of dishwashers with apps might seem reasonable but it is actually misleading. When you hire somebody as your personal assistant, the transaction is relatively straightforward: You pay the person for the services tendered — often, in cash — and that is the end of it. It is tempting to say that the same logic is at work with virtual assistants: You surrender your data — the way you would surrender your cash — for Google to provide this otherwise free service.

However, something does not add up here: Few of us expect our personal assistants to walk away with a copy of all our letters and files in order to make a buck off them. For our virtual assistants, on the other hand, this is the only reason they exist.

In fact, we are getting shortchanged twice: First, when we surrender our data — eventually, it ends up on Google’s balance sheet — in exchange for relatively trivial services, and, second, when that information is then later used to customize and structure our world in a way that is neither transparent nor desirable.

This second life-shaping feature of data as a unit of exchange is not yet well understood. However, it is precisely this ability to shape our future even after we surrender it that turns data into an instrument of domination. While cash, with its usual anonymity, has no history and little connection to social life, the data are nothing but a representation of social life — albeit crystallized into kilobytes. Google Now can work only if the company behind it manages to bring vast chunks of our existence — from communication to travel to reading — under its corporate umbrella. Once there, these activities can suddenly acquire a new economic dimension: They can finally be monetized.

Nothing of the kind happens to today’s rich when they hire a personal assistant. Here, the balance of power is clear: The master is dominating the servant — and not the other way around, as is the case with Google Now and the poor. In a way, it is the poor who are the true “virtual assistants” to Google — in helping it to amass the data that the company later monetizes.

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