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When it comes to whether still to use social media or not given the increasing number of trials regarding data protection laws, various thought-provoking ideas have been outpouring. Most of these ideas do not necessarily relate to being anti-technology. 

Most importantly, whether we accept it or not, we start “losing our free will.” It is no longer surprising that as algorithms monitor our behavior and activities, it becomes easier for tech companies to change our behavior. In alignment with Skinner’s behaviorism model, as user data is gathered by computers, tech companies in Silicon Valley can make tremendous profit by making the user become a product rather than a customer without a discussion of personal economic dignity. While in the past we were looking at TV or billboards to watch the ads, now the advertisers are watching which undermines our free will by influencing our behavior. It not only destroys our soul, but also makes what we say meaningless. 

One of the most effective ways of undermining our economic dignity is using the illusion of offering something for free as exemplified by Facebook and Google. Although at first glance such a ‘free-to-everyone’ model may look appealing, ‘free’ has a much higher price than we realize. Our privacy, data along our mental and social health are being traded for the sake of receiving a free service.

Similar to the invention of books, a social mission of the Internet was to make everything free for the public as public commons was the desired aim to avoid any type of inequity. On the other hand, while everything is supposed to be free, everything is also supposed to be about hero entrepreneurs. It is very common among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to think that education, medicine or transportation in the world can be re-invented by their start-ups. While they convinced most individuals that in order to finance a connection between two individuals a third person should be paid to manipulate them, this model resulted in the following social and economic crises:

  • While software may appear to have been developed on free, open source platforms, a crucial part of the code runs on private computers placed in hyper secured places. In other words, free and open resulted in private and secret.
  • A free product puts the burden onto the end user by mentioning in a user agreement that the company has actually the right to make use of their data and spy on them.
  • Major tech companies act like gatekeepers as they are able to decide on what content is allowed. It becomes more difficult to draw a line between a public platform and a private publisher. Limiting information and modifying personal feeds also destroys the capacity for empathy due to decreased levels of interaction with differing viewpoints.
  • Through means of a ‘free-to-everyone’ model, “walled gardens” around tech companies in Silicon Valley have been built. 

Much of these issues are related to deeper philosophical problems such as a materialistic or empiricist rationality which is the norm in Silicon Valley. Yet, leaving this aside, it also goes back to the main principles of economy. Needless to say, profit can be bad when it is gained through injustice or immoral exploitation. While profit has important social advantages such as empowering individuals and organizations through philanthropy or profit-sharing or in the form of tax provision for public services, profits are also tied to moral trends. 

When things are provided for free of charge; in that case, the user has no claim as the only thing they get is manipulation, data-mining or spying in addition to the well-known slogan of morality of “Don’t Be Evil.”  This is in contrast to paid transactions which entail social interactions with obligations that constitute a type of social capital that is important for society. Perhaps, lots of micro-transactions, can occur through market forces and pressure from blockchain technologies.

The idea of the free flow of information within our gig economy may sounds altruistic, yet it eventually leads many individuals into the informal economy, where opportunities for personal and social stability are no longer possible. Perhaps, what we economically need are more commerce and transactions rather than free services. 

As Gilder has written in his book Life After Google, only by being paid by end users can social media companies serve their users directly. While a person may be able to see a poisonous propaganda by paying for it he will not be able to pay to have that poison directed at someone else. Although this may not sound like the ideal model, at least, the incentive for poisoning the world will be undone in this way.

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Ayse Kok
Ayse has over 8 years of experience in the field of social, mobile and digital technologies both from a practitioner and from a researcher perspective. She participated in various projects in partnership with international organizations such as UN, NATO and the EU. Ayse also acted as an adjunct faculty member in her home town Turkey. Ayse attended various international conferences as a speaker and published several articles in both peer-reviewed journals and academic books. She completed her master and doctorate degrees at both University of Oxford and Cambridge in UK.

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