Technology companies are fighting each other for a share of our attention. What does it mean for the society at large?
India’s innovative digital public infrastructure has helped it to leapfrog decades in development. Embedded within this digital infrastructure is a brand new approach to governance, which could be the way forward for the whole world. In The Third Way: India’s Revolutionary Approach to Data Governance, technology lawyer and privacy expert Rahul Matthan presents an original view of the role technology can play in data governance.
The following excerpt talks how businesses are extracting value by subjecting their customers to constant monitoring, manipulation, and commodification.
For most of its early history, the internet was not regulated. Few understood what it was about or how it worked. As a result, regulators left well alone, allowing the ecosystem to flourish, unencumbered by compliance obligations.
This hands-off approach came under pressure when the internet evolved to allow users to generate content themselves. With more and more people posting whatever they wanted online, what some users thought was acceptable was viewed by others as offensive and potentially illegal. Since those who uploaded content were either anonymous or unverifiable, website owners were held liable for the content on their sites instead.
Had things carried on this way, it would have been the end of the nascent internet.
From this lack of regulation and freedom from restraint grew the business models and data practices that have come to characterize the modern data economy. As we have seen, data is collected from us wherever we go. It is collected by third parties we know—the local grocery store whose loyalty programme we are part of and the gym that keeps track of our workout routine and our meal plans—as well as those we don’t. We allow the devices we wear to access information about where we go, how long we walk and what we photograph. We allow the devices around us, in our homes and offices, to remember what we search for and discern our current mood from the type of music we listen to. Anyone who loves gadgets (like I do) is bleeding data every minute of every day.
This data is put to work to identify us. To slot us into buckets, placing us into categories based on whatever purpose the companies collecting this data want to achieve. The more categories we can be slotted into, the better it is because it is by understanding how these different categories intersect that the machine learns how to create narrower, more finely grained profiles of who we are and what drives us. And when they have managed to slot us into all these buckets, nameless, faceless entities that we have never met will end up knowing us better than we do ourselves.
In almost every instance, these insights are used for commercial advantage. To direct advertising at us with such finegrained accuracy that it reaches us at the precise moment we are most likely to buy whatever the advertiser is selling. To evaluate whether we are worthy of the services we might have applied for—a loan, a job, or insurance for our car—and to monitor whether we will continue to be so throughout that service.
It has, as a result, assumed tremendous commercial significance, giving rise to what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, a new form of capitalism that incentivizes technology companies to collect, analyse and profit from personal data. Unlike traditional capitalism, where businesses extract value from the production and exchange of goods and services, in surveillance capitalism, value is created through the monitoring, analysis and manipulation of human behaviour.
Zuboff believes that surveillance capitalism is the commodification of personal data by creating ‘behavioural surplus.’ This allows businesses to build ‘prediction products’ that are then sold to willing buyers who use them to influence behaviour and manipulate consumer choices. This means that companies can shift focus from meeting the existing needs of their customers to predicting what their needs might be and shaping their behaviours to nudge them in the direction of these potential needs they could fulfil. Not only does this impact individual autonomy and privacy, it also gives businesses the incentive to subject their customers to constant monitoring, manipulation and commodification.
If behavioural surplus is a valuable commodity, companies must find ways to generate more of it. They need to keep users on their site for as long as possible so that through their interactions with the content on it, they can improve their insights of them.
To do this, they have to design offerings to hold customers’ attention for the greatest possible duration. And they have to do it better than the competition. Tristan Harris argues that this is why we are currently living in an attention economy, where technology companies are fighting each other for a share of our attention. One way in which this manifests is through the technology designed to keep users engaged and scrolling for as long as possible. This is achieved through a series of software choices—infinite scrolling, push notifications and personalized content recommendations, all of which are designed to ensure that users voluntarily spend more time on the platform.
These seemingly innocuous design choices have significant consequences for society.
Today, data is both the raw material and the means of production of the modern economy. It is often used in ways that are not in the interests of those it pertains to. It is put to uses that far exceed the purposes for which it was collected and retained longer than required because no one knows when it might be useful. Even though data fiduciaries assure us that they will only collect as much data as is strictly necessary for them to achieve their stated purpose, they end up collecting as much as they possibly can so that they never want for data when required and are free to derive as much information and as many insights from it as possible.
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The businesses that control the spigot of the data firehose are, today, among the most valuable on the planet. They have more customers than the population of large countries and their most minor decisions affect the lives and livelihoods of billions. They are among the most powerful entities on the planet, with the ability to control what we get to see and what we don’t. And as a result, they can influence our beliefs, shape our decisions and change our minds.
Excerpted with permission of Juggernaut Books from The Third Way: India’s Revolutionary Approach to Data Governance by Rahul Matthan.