PBS NewsHour had a fascinating interview last night with Jaron Lanier, a respected thinker on digital culture and the author of “Who Owns the Future?” He’s worried about the long-term detrimental effects on society and the economy of “free,” that is, our usually unconscious decision to give away our personal data in exchange for so-called “free” services, such as Facebook and Twitter. (And as it happens, WordPress blogs are free, though I bought the premium version for $99.) In essence, he believes we are unwittingly enriching the owners of the digital means of production (big data, server farms, and Wall Street) at our own expense. In other words, you and I are de-valuing ourselves by giving away our names, birth dates, places of residence, and innumerable clicks to people in large corporations or governments who don’t know us and don’t care about us. And when these organizations get our data for free, they will treat the data with the care it deserves, which is no care at all. Witness the current NSA data-collection debacle.
Lanier draws on ideas going back to the 1960s. Every time data is provided–either actively or passively–the provider of the data should be compensated with money. Watch the video for his great real world example related to personal privacy. We know that data has economic value, so why not pay the owner? I would never give away my labor all day every day and expect to survive. My work is too valuable. My data should be treated the same way by those who benefit by it.
The obvious rebuttal to his argument is the barter arrangement. Facebook and Twitter are trading access for our data, though the exchange rate and the relative value is impossible to determine. Are we getting our “barter’s” worth? And can you apply the barter argument to governments’ collection of meta-data so we can be safer? Is the safety I’m gaining equal to the value of my data? Without a marketplace to resolve this, we can’t know the answer.
What do you think? What is your click-through rate?