Consumer, Data Cow or Person of Interest?

posted in: Life, Technology | 0

Along with many others I rail against the persistent use of the word ‘consumer’ by business, the media and even government. We are not, none of us, merely consumers, we are sentient, we are people. Consuming things is a by-product of our existence, not our defining characteristic or our purpose. Despite the confected faux regard for ‘consumer power’ or ‘consumer rights’ there is something inherently disrespectful and patronizing about referring to people as ‘consumers’. We are, on some occasions, customers, everyone is in some ways, on some days, someone’s customer. That’s fine, it conveys the idea of a willing transaction, an adult-to-adult relationship based on mutual interest. There is no context, in my view, where the word ‘consumer’ could not be more respectfully replaced by ‘customer’ and many where ‘person’ or ‘people’ would work just as well. Labelling people as ‘consumers’ implies that our only usefulness to the state is as units of labour to produce and units of consumption to justify ever more production. We’re just like the human batteries in ‘The Matrix’, Winston in Orwell’s 1984, put on earth to support the system, ‘Big Brother’.

Consumers? You might as well call us ‘eaters’, ‘breathers’ or maybe  ‘hungry, needy oxygen-users’.

If we buy into this idea of ourselves, even if only in part, as ‘consumers’ we are also giving license to a system that encourages us to consume more and more and more. Creating demand for ever improving products and services is the bedrock of liberal capitalism, a Western system that has done far more good than harm and as the old line goes, is better than the alternatives. Creating excessive consumption is bad. People know the difference, people have come up with the idea of a more circular economic system to limit waste pollution and over-depletion of finite resources. Consumers consume, just like gamblers gamble. People know when to stop.

So can we please confine the term ‘consumer’ to Room 101? Let’s just incinerate it. We are customers and/or we are people. Now we can turn to the far more dangerous threat to our humanity. Our real purpose is to provide data. We are fast becoming ‘Data-Cows’. Justin E.H. Smith is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris. In a recent article for The New Statesman he rather depressingly concluded that one’s job is irrelevant, whether professor or production worker, our role is to generate data.

………… it is growing ever clearer that the true job of all of us, now, is to be milked for data by the provisioners of online content.

What we do now, mostly, is update our passwords, guess at security questions, click on images that look like boats to prove we’re not robots. We are trainers of AI and watchers of targeted ads. 

Justin E.H. Smith: ‘Meritocracy and the future of work’ The New Statesman, April 2021

The logical conclusion of this is that when enough data has been milked from us it will all be uploaded to machines and humanity will have served its purpose. Sounds like a Sci-Fi plot – worryingly life has a habit of imitating art. And the on-ramp to the brave new, de-humanized world has already been unveiled and not just by Zuckerberg. On this very day the technology company, Improbable, has just raised £150 million to build M2, an infrastructure for the Mata-verse bringing together work and entertainment into a virtual, fully online world where all we will do is spew out yet more data for learning machines to manipulate.

To cut a swathe through history, we evolved from a repressive feudal economy to a more open, liberal capitalist economy though the ability to earn our own money and have control over how we spent it, overthrowing the Barons in the process. The new Techno Barons (or governments as in the case of China) can return us to subservience if we do not have control over the data we generate and how it gets used and monetized. We have to fight for this, we need to support the new platforms that enable us to own and transact our own data (you can check some of them out here) and in the meantime we need to resist any and every effort to get us to share our data with people who will exploit it to their, not our, benefit. Whenever you can, don’t give your email address, don’t sign up, refuse permission, block the cookies, use VPN’s.

We need to be able to hold up our hands, when we choose to, and declare ourselves a person of interest with opinions, ideas, preferences and purchasing power unique to us. We are all interesting because despite what the data & behavioural scientists tell you, despite what the algorithms predict, we make surprising choices and act out of character. We think, we have ideas, we create.

You are not a consumer, you’re more than a data-cow, you are a person of interest. Your data has great value, own it, and use it on your own terms.

Solving the Social Dilemma

I’ve just finished my article on my response to the Netflix documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’. I ran a small survey to help me in the writing of this and results are still coming in so there may be some further additions and editing to be done but I wanted to get this first version out there and see what people think. Please let me know.

Just Imagine

posted in: Cars, Life | 0

My wife Liz has just taken delivery of her new car, the recently launched Land Rover Defender. The car is awesome, in summary everything you like about Defender and most of what you like about Range Rover, she loves it (and so do I). High demand and limited production made it very hard to get hold of the car, I spent a long time ringing around dealers trying to locate one until I struck lucky with Land Rover Waterford up in Jo’burg.  (Many thanks to Charlotte and Thabo who sorted me out and got my name on it fast.)

If you want a full review of the car you can check out Rory Reid’s video, I just want to highlight one very cool feature. There are two buttons within easy reach above the rear view mirror. If you hit the one on the left it connects you immediately to the LR breakdown rescue service. If you press the one on the right it summons the emergency and medical services. If you have an accident and the airbags deploy but the front door is not opened within one minute it will automatically call rescue, emergency and medical help. How cool is that? A really important safety feature and one that reinforces the go-anywhere adventurous image of the car. Liz has had some health issues recently and we live in South Africa which has its challenges – the strength of this car plus this amazing safety feature sealed my decision to do anything I could to get hold of one (just as she got the all clear to drive again and in time for her birthday).

But here’s the thing – thirty years ago I was in an innovation workshop we were running as part of a project for the RAC (Royal Automobile Club Roadside Rescue). We were given an introductory briefing from some of their technical team and they talked about the possibility in the future that cars would have GPS systems and computers that would locate any car in trouble and automatically dispatch help. We all thought this was really cool but so far-fetched we didn’t develop it much further, instead favouring ideas that felt of more immediate commercial relevance. I’m not saying we were wrong to do that, I’m just saying the future is what we can imagine it to be. 30 years on from an idea in an innovation workshop we just bought a car that has made it a reality.

It also has another very cool feature – using 360 degree cameras if it detects a cyclist in the blind spot of the side mirrors it stops you opening the door. Never saw that one coming.

The Roaring Twenties?

Interesting piece in the Telegraph this week from their highly distinguished economics journalist, Jeremy Warner, in which he speculates that the aftermath of this pandemic might be an economic boom as was the case after the 1918/19 Spanish Flu outbreak. The period that followed the post 1st WW pandemic was known as ‘The Roaring Twenties’. Might we be on the verge of a ‘New Roaring Twenties’ 100 years on?

JW quite rightly warns of the danger of historic comparisons. The Spanish Flu was far worse than Covid 19 (10 million people across the world died) so the scale of the disruption was more than comparable but the situation was different. It’s hard to separate the bounce back from Spanish Flu and the bounce back from the Great War. His point, nonetheless, is that economies can reinvent themselves after, or even because of, catastrophic events as resources flow into new and emerging industries. A lot of people hope that one driver of our economic recovery this time will be Green Energy – a booming industry that addresses a global challenge – but it will need to be more than that, more perhaps than we are capable of imagining. A century ago the industrial landscape was made up of coal and steel, railroads and ships. That was displaced by oil and plastics, cars and planes. There was leisure and entertainment but no-on thought of them as sectors capable of driving an economy. There was data in our parents’ generation but no-one envisaged it as an industry, the new oil.

So what awaits us? Clean energy we hope but also Fintech, Biotech, Robotics, AI we think (so maybe we won’t need to) . There’s no sign of population growth slowing, only shifting geographically. Economic growth is fundamentally fuelled by population growth. As social apes distinguished by three things – our ability to produce more offspring than we can feed, our ability to exist in larger groups and our ability to copy quickly – we have had to develop and been able to disseminate technology to support our growing numbers. From the wheel & fire to electricity & computers, as our numbers have swelled our technology has transformed and our economies have grown. In 1820 the world population was one billion, by 1920 it was 2 billion, in 2020 it is heading towards 8 billion and our global economy has grown by even more than that. In 1820 China accounted for nearly 40% of a global economy of roughly half a $ Billion. By 1920 the global GDP was more than half a $Trillion and USA had overtaken China. In 2020, before Covid hit, the global economy was worth $142 Trillion.

It’s not all about money. Creative expression has also evolved enriching us culturally but also economically. The creative industry is estimated to be close to 10% of the global economy. Charlie Chaplin didn’t see that coming.

Our predecessors in the early 1920’s could not begin to see the explosion in innovation and birth of new industries coming down the track. They would not even recognise most of the job titles that exist today – data scientist, influencer, epidemiologist (the science of epidemiology emerged as a result of Spanish Flu)

The notion that there could more than just an economic recovery from Covid 19, there could actually be an economic boom based on sectors and jobs we cannot even imagine, is perhaps not so daft. I would however make two important caveats. Firstly the dislocation from where we were to where we might be heading will be very painful for some, sadly the poorest and most disadvantaged in society. The medium term might be exciting but the short term could be social carnage, and we know the dangers of that. As a result of social depravation and the rise of populism, the world was at war again less than two decades after the end of the Great War and the subsequent outbreak of Spanish Flu  .

Secondly, as I write about in my paper Neo-naked Economics, the actual economic model has to evolve to meet new challenges, as it has always needed to over the centuries. The new economic model for a new global economy needs to get back to having a social purpose, something we’d lost sight of in business and something we need to rediscover to avoid history repeating itself in the wrong way.

Existential Threat vs Existential Opportunity (with a bit of Hedonism thrown in)

posted in: Featured Content, Life | 0

For some reason I can’t explain I have a keen ear for trends in vocabulary. I notice when certain words or phrases enter the ‘Narrative’ (that’s one by the way) and quickly get over-used to the point of cliche. Here are some other examples:-

Curation – a few years ago it burst on the scene and suddenly everything was curated.

Agency – in the sense of achieving control over events.

Trope – I think it means emerging themes or plot-lines

So…. – at some point, for no apparent reason, every reply to a question now started thus.

(Don’t even get me started on ‘Like’ or the Aussie inflection that turns every statement into a search for approval.)

Modern speak aside I’m just interested in words generally and words that enter our modern lexicon in particular. I’m actually quite nerdy about it, because when a word or phrase catches my attention I research them. I need to know what they really mean or more often their range of meaning which can be rich and unexpected. It’s been a rewarding hobby because every now and again I find enlightenment. It happened again this week.

I had for some time been interested in the word ‘existential’ and how every issue or threat or problem had now become existential. Not pressing or serious or concerning – existential.

I vaguely understood what existential meant – something that relates to existence. So in essence (a very important word we’ll come back to shortly) an existential threat is one so pressing, serious, concerning it risks our very existence.

On the other hand I also vaguely remembered that existentialism was a branch of philosophy, Jean-Paul Sartre and all that stuff about angst rooted in the absurdity of life.

I decided to dig around and I was right. There are two meanings to existential. One meaning does indeed relate to existence. So an existential threat would be a threat that affects existence. That is mostly how it is used today but with an added twist of ‘clear and present danger’. An existential crisis is something really serious we have to deal with NOW or life as we know it is over.

Listening to the narrative (aka stories in news and social media) we face a number of existential threats around racism, gender fluidity/equality, climate, water, population, the growing gap between haves and have-nots, Artificial Intelligence, China and Chinese hegemony (great word, look it up, it’s all about domination and a power grab) to name just a few.

I’m not being flip when I say it’s all very angst-inducing. All the more so as we are in the midst of an existential Covid-19 crisis soon to be an existential economic crisis and some unknown ‘new normal’ (there’s another trendy phrase). And don’t forget on top of all this there are the ever present existential challenges we all have as individuals – we have our own problems to deal with as regards our careers, health, family & friends.

I don’t think I’m alone in my angst, I think this will ‘resonate’ with a lot of people – not just matter or be relatable or even strike a chord, resonate.

The enlightenment for me came from exploring the ideas behind existentialism. The essence of existentialism is that life is what we as individuals make it. Prior to the existentialists philosophers like Aristotle or Aquinas believed that essence comes before existence, that there was a natural order of things, a meaning to life that determines our best actions and therefore the meaning of our existence. Existentialists believe the opposite. Existence precedes essence. The natural order is absurdity and only by the actions of individuals do we bring meaning and purpose. From good old Wiki, not my only but my most used research tool (please donate to them) I share this:-

Sartre argued that a central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals—independently acting and responsible, conscious beings (“existence”)—rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individuals fit (“essence”). The actual life of the individuals is what constitutes what could be called their “true essence” instead of there being an arbitrarily attributed essence others use to define them. 

Let’s pause there and think about that.  This might seem a bit heavy but actually it is very simple and very powerful. As Ghandi said, we can be the change we want to see. Each of us as individuals can bring meaning and purpose to life by our actions. There is no “Well, that’s just the way it is” it can be what we choose to make it. The existential threats are over-whelming, the world does feel absurd, it can cause depression and angst. The way to fight this is to change what we do not what we think or say or tweet. We can consciously fight our prejudices, we can behave more responsibly, we can behave less decadently and more morally.

Of course we can also do this collectively and through our institutions and we are right to push for this to happen but it starts with us. As former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book on Morality we behave as if it’s never our fault. We seem to have abdicated our moral responsibility to others, the government, big business, the left, the right, Them.

I think I want to be a good existentialist. I want to mean what I do and own what I do (I will make mistakes of course but I can try). If we all do that, if we start with our own purposeful actions, it can create a better existence. We are capable of more than our labels or various identities would have others believe.

I now see the growing movement towards purpose-driven businesses, if it is authentic, for what it really is. I now see it in existentialist terms. These are businesses no longer prepared to accept life as it is. They have a purpose to make life what it could be starting with their own business.

All sounds a bit worthy does it not? Well, let me sugar the pill. After researching it long ago I converted to hedonism which favours pleasure over pain. This does not mean what most people think, which is the more Epicurean version of excess and indulgence. We all have choices in how we do things. I live in Cape Town most of the time and I have two ways I can drive to the centre of town. One is a bit quicker but the other takes me past some of the most beautiful ocean views in the world. As a hedonist I take that route most often – and yes I sometimes cycle it. Buying fewer things but items of much higher quality is the action of a true hedonist. Doing right by others, embracing diversity, making a positive difference where you’re able, these can all bring more pleasure than trouble to an ethical hedonist.

Hedonistic existentialism – do you think it might catch on? I hope so because it’s an existential opportunity to deal with the existential threats and derive some pleasure. What do I want? So, I want it to be a new trope in the narrative, we can like assume our individual agency and like curate our actions? Hedonistic Existentialism – like doing it and liking doing it?