Have you ever wondered why apps like Instagram and TikTok are free? Many of us think that advertisers pay these retailers, so our online activity is immaterial. But our generation is at the center of the attention economy, where if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. Trillions of terabytes of data are collected about us – everything from our faces (think: FaceID ) to our voices (Alexa and Siri), to what we read and watch, to our extended network of friends and family.
Algorithms feed data into computational models that grow smarter and smarter as we continue living our lives online. Eventually, the algorithms can predict our thoughts, behaviors, and values. This marketplace trades exclusively in human futures, and it does so at scale. While these companies assured us they were collecting data to improve their services, they have instead engineered ways to gather massive amounts of private data on each of us. These shadow operations sell our data to third parties, effectively making our attention a monetized commodity. For example, pop-up ads on social media feeds and search engines use not only your search histories, location, and interests, but also those of your friends to curate specific ads that capture our attention and money. Many believe targeted advertising is harmless, but consider what happens when these data and technology platforms are used for nefarious purposes, such as with the disinformation-for-profit economy? This threatens society’s very definition of truth. The proliferation of fake news and assaults on objective journalism pollute media, breeding and feeding divisions. Many of us have experienced this first-hand, everywhere from family dinners and Socratic seminars to presidential elections.
So, should we be taking collective action against these threats? History has shown us that certain markets should be regulated because they have destructive consequences. For example, a ban on trading in human organs. In many ways, the digital marketplace has gone largely unchecked and the effects have been profound. Preserving the fabric of our society and our democracy depends on us moving away from these harmful business models, demanding ethical technology platforms, and introducing important regulations on data collection and use. It is imperative that we reveal these threats, realign the financial incentives, and ultimately, prioritize humanity over profits.