The recent release of Jeff Orlowski’s documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ on Netflix may prove to be an even bigger deal than their 2016 film ‘The Great Hack’. The latter left you feeling that the villains of the piece were the businesses like Cambridge Analytica who malevolently manipulated social media data to change the political narrative, influence elections and threaten democracy. TSD points the finger squarely at big tech who purposefully design social media to feed their commercial model and in the process fuck up society and the whole of mankind.
“If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product”.
Social media is not just abusing their tech to sell us stuff, they are selling us – our attention and our behaviour – without us knowing and to our detriment. TSD paints a scary future with overtones of the human batteries in The Matrix and Skynet from Terminator – AI may have started as a technology tool we used but it might become us that are the tools serving the needs of higher artificial intelligence. You think this is fantasy? Watch the documentary.
“Only two industries call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and IT” said Yale’s Edward Tufte.
Marketers (who pay for all this with their ad budgets) are trying to wean themselves off calling customers ‘consumers’. (If you drop the ‘m’ consumer is an anagram for ‘con user’). I think ‘people’ would be the best word because it simultaneously captures diversity and common humanity – the ‘we’. But I don’t think the lexicon is the issue and in fact I don’t think marketers or even the titans of big tech are the villains. They are people. A lot of the contributors to TSD, people like Tristan Harris or Justin Rosenstein, are from big tech. They have a conscience and know that many of their former colleagues do too. Marketers are not evil svengalis. They are paid to promote their products but most recognize that this increasingly means doing so in a sustainable and socially responsible way because that is what society wants. It is what will make their customers happy and they like happy customers. So what makes good people in marketing and tech do bad stuff? Two things:-
- Not recognizing the unintended consequences
- Not having a commercially attractive alternative
On the heels of ‘The Great Hack’, TSD can address the former. As ‘Inconvenient Truth’ was for climate change, this is a tipping point in the debate about social media and the issues around the misuse of the data it generates for the ‘attention extraction’ industry. We all know that something is wrong, we all know this is seriously fucked up and heading in a bad direction – but what is the alternative? What is the antidote? TSD is incredibly powerful and disturbing, very disturbing especially as it leaves you in no doubt things need to change but not much hope they will and no real solutions other than regulation (of some sort not defined) to disrupt the business model on which big tech has thrived.
Just as I concluded in my paper ‘Naked Economics; the new laws of the jungle’ the easy conclusion is that governments need to fix this – ‘they’ need to regulate. Easy but wrong because even if ‘they’ wanted to, ‘they’ can’t. It’s too complex, there is too much vested interest and there is no ‘they’. The legislation would need to be intricately drafted to cover every issue and avoid every unintended consequence. There are $ trillions at stake so expect some resistance and every government would need to act in lock step which they won’t/can’t.
So, as with the new economics, let’s focus on ‘we’ – what we the people can do about the social dilemma that is social media data harvesting, processing and commercial application. For the wider economic context the macro levers to pull were the attribution of cost and ascribing of value to enable us to make better choices. In the specific area of data the micro levers are platforms that allow us as individuals to own, control and transact our own data.
The solution lies not so much in regulating the current business model, although that might have a role to play, but rather in creating a new business model that empowers people.
At the heart of the current model is data about 3 things:-
- What you think
- What you do
- The connection between these
The tech, the algorithms, the UI and the AI that are all designed to do this can of course then be applied to change what you think and do, to get your attention and to persuade you. The business model is then to monetize this by selling it to people who wish to promote their business. It can also be sold to people wishing to change your politics but that will only ever be a small fraction of the billions social media earns. The big bucks come from big business.
The global industry for advertising and research is roughly $1 Trillion. That is how much business will pay to find out what you think and present the best version of themselves to you at the most opportune time.
What if we just told them? What if we offered the information they want to know and stuck our hand up when they had the best chance to sell something to us? Because if we did, en masse, then the revenues for facebook et al would start to evaporate.
Who would be prepared to do that? We all would. We do it all the time for purchases that are important to us and about which we are unsure. Say we want a haircut, a new car, expensive cosmetics, a new home, a piece of home electronics, a suit for our wedding. We pitch up, tell someone we are interested and then proceed to tell them everything they need to know about our lives, quite often more than they need to know. Yes we may do some research on-line and then purchase on-line but there are still many things where we meet people face to face, people that we know are there to sell us stuff, we tell them we are interested and we answer pretty much any question they care to ask. Why? Because it is in our interest to do so and we get something in return – help in making our best choice.
As long as we feel in control of the exchange of our information, our attention, our data, and this has material benefit to us we are happy to give business what they want.
I have been thinking about this for the last 5 years and I have ideas for two potential tech based platforms that would allow people at scale to exchange their ideas and their data – on their terms – with businesses and brands. These could divert a big chunk of the revenue Social Media generates directly into the hands of us, we the people, and offer what business wants quicker, cheaper and more effectively.
It would not stop the potential of big tech to produce addictive, manipulative social platforms with the power to affect peoples’ physical and mental health, to undermine truth with fake news, to divide society and swing elections but it would take away their incentive to do so. They would eventually be left with only one option which is to make you pay for their service – and if we pay for it then we control it. It becomes the product, not us.
Let me know if anyone is interested to know more……..
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