Our data is the fastest growing commodity in the world, and we're just giving it away.
I've always been skeptical of social media (while also using it for most of my adult life), maintaining that the whole gambit is a dangerous social experiment. For years I had a personal rule of "no real feelings on the internet", and I so wish I had held to it. Now that it's become a fully-fledged global industry – an industry worth more than 163 billion USD, comprised of data collecting, storing, processing, analyzing, and utilizing – the more I think about the possible trajectories and implications, the more my heart and stomach tighten.
Of course, it was always about data. For advertisers right? "A better customer experience". For many, the idea that their phone is listening is a funny abstract blip. Targeted and mis-targeted ads are a part of our daily online woes and amusements. But it's about so much more than that.
Data is now inextricable from our economy. The industry of data collection (collection being only one small piece of the data industry as a whole) is experiencing a compound annual growth rate of 25.6%, set to be worth 8.21 billion by 2028. The "benefits" of data collection are still touted along the lines of "better customer experience". As though the industry is doing us a favour. As though they just have our best interests at heart.
If we can consider a one-decade-old industry "traditional" in any sense, traditionally, digital data collection has been used by advertisers and marketers. The general public still more or less believes data collection is meant to serve an amped-up version of advertising. "Tik Tok is the teen magazine of Gen Z". Okay sure. But when I was 15, the magazines didn't read me back and analyze my behaviour. "Twitter has replaced opening the newspaper". Right. But newspapers didn't customize predatory user experiences based on your deepest anxieties. And no print media has ever used millions of bots to sway your feelings on anything, measure your responses, and then sell those interactions to various third parties.
Whereas before, target demographics consisted of age, gender, income, occupation and family status, they now include endless lists of interests, behaviours, and interactions, all measured, analyzed, and amalgamated for a far wider range of buyers, and a far wider range of applications.
Clearly, when an industry has amassed as much as it now has – estimated to be 175 zettabytes of data by 2025, and 2,142 zettabytes by 2035 (how much is a zettabyte? It's 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. For perspective, the Milky Way is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kms across. Bytes are obviously completely different from kilometres, but my point is, the number is larger than we can fathom)– clearly, it's about a lot more than advertising.
So who wants our data? Well to start, did you know Data Brokers are a thing? Any and all data that has been made publicly available, virtually or not (ie: public records), can be managed by data brokers. This goes beyond tech giants like Google and Meta who already collect and process massive amounts of the public's data. Gathering and selling data to whoever wants to pay for it is legal, and largely unregulated. Whether you've shared your data intentionally by clicking "I agree" to updated terms of service agreements (and everyone reads those, right?), or unintentionally by using easy passwords or clicking on a phishing scam, all of that data is up for grabs by third parties. Uploaded images, videos, names, searches, products, conversations... and "third party" doesn't mean one party is you, one party is the platform you're using, and the third party is a very nice company selling popsicles. "Third party" means brokers, partners, or sometimes just whoever else who might want to buy the data. And data can be copied, so if it's sold to one party, there's nothing stopping a broker from selling it to another, and another, and another...
The places a lot of people's minds go when they hear this, is to hackers or "the government". That's still too small. That's still only a tiny reason why you should be treating your data as the precious commodity is literally is. Data is now widely used by law enforcement, healthcare, gaming companies, product developers, corporate management, and by many branches of science. It's being used not only to understand humanity and society, but to track, shape and influence behaviour, habits, even political opinions, on a mass scale.
It isn't about any one person sitting behind a secret switchboard or computer screen saying "aha! She's brushing her teeth now! Let's show her toothpaste ads mwahahahaha", it's about finely tuned and ever-evolving algorithms, fed by your data and steered by machine learning, gradually infiltrating every inch of our lives, until we literally can't live, can't think, without them. And it's already happening. If all your apps were deleted today, would your life be impacted? How many online accounts do you have, including banking, insurance, utility bills, etc? If you deleted them all today, would tomorrow be unchanged?
"I'm not that interesting anyway, they can have my data!" I hear that a lot. It doesn't matter how interesting or uninteresting you are. You might be just as uninteresting as thousands of others, but thousands of uninteresting people still feed thousands of datasets that inform thousands of algorithms that will eventually seem to know you better than you know yourself. And this "knowing" won't only come from data collection, but from using that data, processing it and feeding it back to you slightly altered, to convince you that you really DO like/dislike/love/hate that music, movie, style, brand, activity, restaurant, public figure, ideology, etc. Still in its early stages, the deep algorithmic damage that's already been done can be clearly seen in vulnerable populations. Several thousands have already been hoodwinked, swayed, cheated, and ruined due to algorithmic influence. Beyond that, ADD, ADHD, anxiety, and a slew of other mental health concerns are rampant, our memories are eroding, our joy is vanishing. And we're allowing it.
We're only one decade into this, and data is an infinite resource. Already, we can barely tell bots from human users (it's estimated that 64% of all internet traffic is generated by bots). As AI tech advances and algorithms are continually refined, we will continue to be mined. Data black markets already exist. And just as online apps are a "choice" now, they will still be a choice in 20 years, except the choice will be to either engage, or live without the ability to bank, shop, get education, vote, or receive healthcare. I cannot tell you how delicious this prospect is to plutocrats. Capitalism isn't crumbling, it's moving to the Cloud. And they have us completely cornered.
I went on a couple of really great dates recently. We had tons in common, so much so, I was reminded of the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray's character spent every day memorizing all of Andie MacDowell's character's favourite things. My over-vigilant brain kicked in and wondered if there was any way this guy could have looked me up and faked our connection. I quickly remembered that it was me who found him, and that there was more than enough solid evidence to back up our serendipitous similarities. But listen, it was late, the gears were already turning, and I started thinking...
There could be a time in the near future, where a service might exist, legal or not, that offers "files" on anyone, anywhere, for the right price. And I don't just mean doxxing (the vile practice of gathering online "breadcrumbs" like personal addresses, schools, public records etc and sharing them publicly to hurt the targeted victim). These files could include favourite dog breeds, ice cream flavours, recent vacations, favourite festivals, circles of friends, last haircut, favourite bands, spiritual beliefs, personal losses... basically entire personal timelines, gathered from data we've freely fed the apps. A lot like what already happens with identity theft, but packaged and branded as a sort of service. Anyone wishing to woo us or exploit us could purchase our file and have everything they need to forge a bogus connection. All such a service would need, would be the ability to store, analyze, and utilize data. Data that, as of today, already exists, and is easily purchased by brokers. Maybe dating apps will start offering such a service in their premium packages (not that they need to, they already encourage users to be "real" and "vulnerable" for more matches. It's astonishing how much personal info people share on those apps).
The more we give to apps and online "services", the most inextricably intertwined we become with data commerce, and the more we allow their power to bleed into our lives. All for a "better customer experience" of course!
That thought alone should be enough to make everyone stop using social media. There are a million ways to package and sell our data. Capitalists will find and exploit them all. The only way out is to stop feeding them while we still can. Teach your kids some hard rules about what can be shared and what can't. Show them the beauty and magic of the real world, get them hooked on it. Centuries of human achievement are not just background props for online likes. Remind them how incomparable reality is, how precious it is, how much there is to do and explore. Yes, the online world is a big part of our reality now, and it's impossible to keep kids off it. But oh my god, at least teach them how to navigate it. The same way you teach them how to navigate the real world. Don't let their passions, bright lights, and wonder become harvested, packaged, and forcefed back to them like some sick social tranquilizer. Don't let them become addicts, used as nothing more than data mines.
So that's my rant, and my warning. Will I delete all my accounts tomorrow? Nope, because I can't. At this point, divesting from them is like carefully removing an implant. But you bet I'll be working on it, or at least finding ways to separate my real self as far as I can from the harvesters.