Humanity has a long history of taking advantage of people and raw material for commercial gains—slavery, child labor, rainforest deforestation, unfair wages, and conquering new lands. Human economic order has been driven by production and profit, which have been propelled by different mechanisms of growth since mankind started to accumulate wealth. Our economies are always evolving to better profit through the extraction of raw materials that are then rendered into products for profit. There is one problem, though: the raw material of this digital economy is our private “human experience,” and it is being extracted right out from under our noses.
The extraction of the human experience.
Like it or not, our human experience and behavior is now the proprietary property of Big Tech. The age of technology lured us in with the promises of information and access for all. We are now seeing that those dreams of liberation are actually tools to exploit our human experiences. We have been happily coerced into giving up our personal data in exchange for free products and convenience. This digital economy is fueled by data-collection-based business models, which are ever expanding the scope and scale of their extraction methods to claim new ground of behavioral surplus as their own.
To understand how this works, think of downloading a free app as a budgeting tool. It’s great because the budgeting app helps keep track of our money, but unbeknownst to us that app is also extracting all kinds of data about our personal spending habits and behavior, which is then rendered to make a profit.
This type of extraction isn't solely limited to apps; it is now extended into the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT is slowly claiming our lives through everything from beds to vacuums, clothing to packaging, TVs to dashboards, all laced with the technology to sense, detect, and track our location, home layouts, conversations, needs, moods, daily rhythms, and reactions.
The future of prediction productions.
Most of us have probably come to terms with advertising that is tailored to our interests and feel that it isn’t as scary as we once thought. We might even find it helpful at times. But advertising isn't the endgame of data extraction in this digital economy. Products where human behavior is not only predicted but also modified is where we are heading as an economy.
Most of us are aware of predictive products and advertising in our lives. The very first prediction product was the click-through rate. Now the Internet of Things is tasked with seeping into the fabric of everything we do to extract every ounce of live data to predict how we will behave and how best to step in to modify. What is harder to understand is how a product could control behavior. The future is already here.
Beyond the control that social media and other addictive platforms already have over users, businesses like auto insurance companies are moving toward monitoring and modifying how we drive with dashboard technology that reports on aspects of how we drive, when we drive, the kind of weather, and even how fast we brake (Zuboff, 2019, p. 212-213). Based on all this data, we can be incentivized to drive better with discounts and penalties. This is just the beginning as the demand increases from businesses that want to know if they should sell us insurance or give us a loan. A quick check of our personal data, like how often we respond to calls and what time we wake up in the morning, will tell them everything they need to know.
A system of competing values.
Unchecked Big Tech has expanded too exponentially for regulatory bodies to possibly keep up and protect the privacy of Americans. There is an ethical debate over how the extraction of our data and privacy infringes on democracy, free will, and autonomy. Many Americans believe in the workings of free market capitalism and unchecked growth, but what about when this free market is encroaching on people’s free will?
We find ourselves looking into a future where our freedoms and the right to privacy will continue to be eroded for profit. It seems we don’t have a choice in the matter, as our data is constantly extracted from our homes and private conversations into the hands of the highest bidder, without our knowledge or consent. We do not have to fall victim to this new economic order. We can fight for a future where privacy is respected by not using platforms where our data is extracted. Fortunately, there is a growing movement of privacy-focused platforms and services for users to switch to.