Consumer to Commodity to Consumer
It is amazing how we are being sold to ourselves.
The announcement of Facebook, a social media company based in the US buying 10% shares in Reliance Jio, a telecom company based in India, was made yesterday. The first thought that came to my below average mind was, why? What was Facebook's business in buying shares in a telecom company? But then, as I read through articles, did some research, I realized that none of the companies are now social media or telecom companies. These companies are now data companies. For these companies, we, the consumer, are commodities. These tech giants smartly sell us to ourselves.
In the last few years, we have read several articles and watched many videos about how our favorite social media platforms are villains in our lives. Google, Amazon, and Facebook are labeled as data mafias of the world. These tech giants exploit our psych to predict our behaviors and even influence us into acting as they want. These platforms are now new channels for the kleptocrats to advance their propaganda.
In today's world, there is no way to go off-grid. Especially in this pandemic, the majority of the population is dependent on these tech giants for basic survival needs. The human dependency on the internet is way past norms of balance. Facebook has daily active users of 1.66 billion people, which is almost 22% of the world population. WhatsApp, another Facebook product, has nearly one billion active users. India alone has 400 million active users on WhatsApp. These platforms have become a necessity for survival.
The brilliant founders, innovators of these companies started with a simple vision of connecting people. Mark Zuckerberg, in his testimony to Congress, stated that Facebook's mission statement is still bringing the world closer. As innocent, these mission statements might sound; the reality behind these companies is far from their vision.
It is unfair to blame these platforms entirely. They have given us the one thing which we crave the most. They have given us unlimited freedom to voice our thoughts, share our activities, likes, dislikes. They have given some of us ammunition to become famous, sometimes even undeserving. Who gives a shit about finely printed terms and conditions, when the alternative is mundane life with no recognition.
In the last decade or so, these tech companies have transitioned from means of connecting to owners of billions of data points. It was only a matter of time when influential people would use this data to their advantage. The beauty of the internet is it exists in our lives without any physical characteristics. It has become an emotion for human beings.
The biggest scandal in this digital age was the 2016 US elections. Cambridge Analytica, the company, based in the UK, helped the Trump campaign win by collecting data on 87 million users in the US and creating their voter profiles. Cambridge Analytica then targets the same users with various ads influencing their behaviors and thus influencing voting decisions. It was a genius project. The scandal got worldwide coverage but is not the only example. Cambridge Analytica's "Do So" campaign helped UNC win the 2010 elections in Trinidad and Tobago. The evidence suggests that the use of Facebook incited ethnic violence in Myanmar. There are more examples in Brazil, some African countries.
History teaches us nothing.
In the late 19th century, a similar revolution happened when we discovered oil. Oil quickly became the most desired commodity in the world. We have started several wars to get hold of this essential commodity. In the early nineteenth century, a great businessman John D. Rockefeller was known for his power in shaping world economics through his company Standard Oil. It took us fifty years to divide his power to a point where we can tolerate it. Today still the Rockefeller name is used when the conspiracy theories about world economics are discussed. It took us over a century to start talking about climate change caused by the usage of oil.
The war for resources is not new for us. Hitler started the war because he wanted unlimited resources for "his" people. The US has fought in Vietnam because they did not want to deal with the communist country for supplies. Look at US-China relations, both powerful nations wasting billions of dollars worth resources to get the upper hand. We have many examples, Iraq, Iran, Syria, where the vulnerability of the less powerful was exploited. Of course, the title of these theaters of wars is always injustice, communism, and terrorism.
Now data is the most valuable resource in the world. In this challenging time of the pandemic, the oil has lost its value, but the value of data keeps rising. The scandals like Cambridge Analytica were first of many scandals to come. The data wars have begun. The scariest part is the common man is a direct casualty in this war, without even his or her knowledge. It will probably take us another half a century to regulate the data collection and its usage. In the best case, we will be awarded some minor portion of the revenue generated from our data. But by then, these data mafias would have squeezed every ounce of us.
The irony of this is, I will be using the services of these tech giants to reach my readers. Sometimes I will be even paying them.