American schoolchildren are taught that Dutch settlers purchased Manhattan island for roughly $24 in costume jewelry. That isn’t exactly so, but even if it were, the Native people would have struck a better bargain than Internet Age denizens have, as we’ve traded content and privacy for a piffling amount of flattery, convenience and connectivity.
Data Capitalism has commodified us in myriad ways, and soon with the Internet of Things, with Alexa listening and toothbrushes and refrigerators “smartened up,” the process will be ambient, almost undetectable. “We are already becoming tiny chips inside a giant system that nobody really understands,” Yuval Noah Harari wrote last year, and we’ve only just begun the process. This is prelude.
It’s possible as we grow more aware of what’s happening we could turn away from this Faustian bargain, as John Thornhill suggests in a Financial Times column, but that would take wisdom and collective will, and it’s not clear we’re in possession of those things.
An excerpt about the underlying importance of “smart” products:
The primary effect of these consumer tech products seems limited — but we will need to pay increasing attention to the secondary consequences of these connected devices. They are just the most visible manifestation of a fundamental transformation that is likely to shape our societies far more than Brexit, Donald Trump or squabbles over the South China Sea. It concerns who collects, owns and uses data.
The subject of data is so antiseptic that it seldom generates excitement. To make it sound sexy, some have described data as the “new oil,” fuelling our digital economies. In reality, it is likely to prove far more significant than that. Data are increasingly determining economic value, reshaping the practice of power and intruding into the innermost areas of our lives.
Some commentators have suggested that this transformation is so profound that we are moving from an era of financial capitalism into one of data capitalism. The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari even argues that Dataism, as he calls it, can be compared with the birth of a religion, given the claims of its most fervent disciples to provide universal solutions.
The speed and scale at which this data revolution is unfolding is certainly striking.•