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.