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<nettime> Evgeny Morozov: How much for your data? (LMD)
Patrice Riemens on Sun, 24 Aug 2014 18:35:23 +0200 (CEST)

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<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 digitalised technology.

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
toothbrush?s 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: let?s 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: there?s someone,
somewhere, willing to pay for knowing what song we whistle in the
shower. The only reason it hasn?t happened yet is because our shower
doesn?t have sensors and isn?t 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 Google?s services fill in all the
vacant areas of our digitised everyday existence. The size of Google?s
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 Google?s ambitions by insisting that data
automatically belongs to the users, or demanding that they at least
share in Google?s 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 paradigm.
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 hadn?t committed.

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
government?s 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

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?

It?s 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? won?t 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 debt.

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 them.

In this, Silicon Valley is like any other industry: unless there?s
profit in it, corporations won?t 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 Don?t 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, 2014.

(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 2009.

(8) See Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now,
Penguin, New York, 2013.


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