After the Facebook scandal it’s time to base the digital economy on public v private ownership of data

The continuing collapse of public trust in Facebook is welcome news to those of us who have been warning about the perils of “data extractivism” for years.

It’s reassuring to have final, definitive proof that beneath Facebook’s highfalutin rhetoric of “building a global community that works for all of us” lies a cynical, aggressive project – of building a global data vacuum cleaner that sucks from all of us. Like others in this industry, Facebook makes money by drilling deep into our data selves – pokes and likes is simply how our data comes to the surface – much like energy firms drill deep into the oil wells: profits first, social and individual consequences later.

Furthermore, the rosy digital future – where cleverly customised ads subsidise the provision of what even Mark Zuckerberg calls “social infrastructure” – is no longer something that many of us will be taking for granted. While the monetary costs of building and operating this “social infrastructure” might be zero – for taxpayers anyway – its social and political costs are, perhaps, even harder to account for than the costs of cheap petroleum in the 1970s.



Such realisations, as sudden and shocking as they might be, are not enough. Facebook is a symptom, not a cause of our problems. In the long run, blaming its corporate culture is likely to prove as futile as blaming ourselves. Thus, instead of debating whether to send Zuckerberg into the corporate equivalent of exile, we should do our best to understand how to reorganise the digital economy to benefit citizens – and not just a handful of multibillion-dollar firms that view their users as passive consumers with no political or economic ideas or aspirations of their own.

The obstacles standing in the way of this transformative agenda are many and, worse, they are structural – not likely to be solved with a clever app. These obstacles stem primarily from the disquieting dynamics of contemporary capitalism – which is more stagnant than our obsession with innovation and disruption betrays – rather than from our supposed addiction to social networkingor tech companies’ abuse of that addiction.

First of all, while we might keep bashing “big tech” all we like, one cannot easily ignore the fact that Facebook, along with Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft and others, have been key to boosting the US stock market to record heights. They have ensured a modicum of prosperity at a time when the rest of the economy is still struggling with the fallout from the financial crisis.

In some sense, America’s tech markets of the 2010s are not much different from America’s housing markets of the 2000s: both have tried to generate wealth, by means of asset appreciation, even when the real economy struggled. Remove the immense gains in the stock value of big tech companies over the past few years and there would be little reason to speak about any meaningful recovery from the crisis. This, if anything, is the main reason why America is unlikely to do anything to tie the hands of its tech giants, especially when China’s tech companies are increasingly flexing their muscles and expanding overseas. Trump will keep raging about Amazon – until the day he discovers Alibaba.

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