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Weathering With You: An Agorist Perspective

If someone asked you what your favorite emotion was, how do you think you’d answer? For many people, I suspect they would answer “Happiness”, “Joy'', or some variant of exclusively positive emotion. Someone may think more meticulously and answer with “Contentment”, which while a positive emotion has a lot of nuance attached to it. However my answer to that question is what I feel others would consider more orthodox: Bittersweet. Pleasure accompanied by suffering, not exactly most people’s first pick but from my perspective pain is necessary in order to enjoy the pleasure that life gives you. Perhaps I'm over-romanticizing but there’s something to desire from looking back fondly at times where you were hurting and seeing yourself in a better place in the present. Perhaps you finally have moved on from “The one who got away” and can look back on those times with fondness. Perhaps you are sharing stories of a friend or family member at their funeral and though they may never w

The Case for Data Mining

7/31/2020 Derrell McIver 

With even more hilarious Congressional hearings, Big Tech has been in the news a lot recently. Popular former presidential candidate Andrew Yang has been discussing the alleged evils of this industry in two of his recent podcasts. In May, he interviewed Jaron Lanier. Lanier is a computer philosopher who argues that the government should prohibit social media companies from selling user’s data to third parties, effectively forcing companies like Facebook and Twitter to charge a service fee. Yang expressed support for this idea. He also, in another episode a month later, said that, “the economics stink for consumers.” He bemoaned how Facebook is currently worth $650 billion, and how “the vast majority of that is on the backs of selling access to us and monetizing our data.” However, he makes an exception for himself by claiming that when he used people's data for targeted ads during his campaign, it was of course "in a very above board way."

Let’s evaluate these claims. First, we need to define the supposed problem. Yang and others are discussing how social media sites collect information--anything from demographics like age and location to recent searches on browsers--and sell that data to companies who want to target advertisements to people. This is a very unique business strategy. It essentially sets up two consumer markets for social media: business-customers who want to run ads and user-customers who want to use the service. Both of these customers are paying for a product. Business-customers pay dollars in exchange for the ability for specific customers to see their advertisements. The user-customer pays with their data in exchange for the ability to use the service. An example from my personal life, this means I get ads for Old Spice while my wife gets ads for Dove.

Clearly this arrangement benefits the business-customer, but how does it also benefit the users? First, assuming the trade is voluntary, we can infer that the exchange is beneficial; otherwise the user-customer would not partake. Specifically, the user benefits from the service. The user values their data at some $X and the service at some $Y. We can tell then that $X is less than $Y because they voluntarily trade their data for the service. Those who do not value $X over $Y, will simply not participate in social media. Though we cannot determine an objective price of data and the service, we can make generalizations about them.

What does your data cost to you? How much did you pay-in dollars or barter-for the information of your age, gender, location and web searches? Nothing. In fact, you do not even have to spend time reporting and organizing this data. Social media companies will do it for you. That of course, does not mean that everyone automatically values their data at zero. Some people will want to keep all of this information private and those who value their privacy very highly may not participate in social media. This is a perfectly fine evaluation, and no one is by any means coerced into tweeting.

But many do feel like they "have to" be on social media in order to get news and relevance. While this is phrased as if it is some kind of coercive arrangement, it is not. In fact, it only shows how much these users value the service. It is true that social media has allowed an unprecedented democratization of information. We can not only receive constant updates on what is going on but can often communicate directly with the people involved. Don't like something a politician says? Tell them and everyone else who reads those comments why. People feeling like they "need" social media are not anymore coerced than those who "need" that shirt because it is on sale. Truly, the benefit to the user is generally enormous. The user-customer also benefits from target ads. Instead of having to see irrelevant products that I would never buy, I can be shown more specific products. I, as a man, benefit from only seeing Old Spice instead of Dove. If I was shown the latter, then both my time and the company's time would be wasted since I won't buy the product anyways. Not only that, but I can also see products specific to my location, like apartments, cars, and jobs.

All of this, though, has assumed that the transaction is voluntary. Part of this voluntary assumption is that users have adequate information about the arrangement. Yang complains that people usually skip over the complicated legalese of the infamous Terms and Conditions. This, though, is irrelevant. Facebook never forces--or even asks--its users to be irresponsible and not read the contract you are agreeing to. In fact, if you wanted to meet with a lawyer to discuss the Terms and Conditions before you made an account, you very well could. Not only is this admission of irresponsibility not relevant, but the alleged legalese is false as well. Facebook clearly says, in the second paragraph of their Terms that, "By using our Products, you agree that we can show you ads that we think will be relevant to you and your interests. We use your personal data to help determine which ads to show you." They are not trying to hide it in the small print. 

However, even if we can accept the argument that a normal person cannot be expected to read contracts before signing them and that somehow Facebook's phrasing is too complex, there still would not be weight to the argument that this is a coercive arrangement. What opponents of data marketing assume, and what I have assumed so far, is that data is property. In other words, we assume that we own our information in the first place. However, data cannot be properly considered as property. Data falls into the general category of intellectual property, and thus falls into the same problems that IP does. Data, like all IP, is not a scarce resource. If I take your data (say I remember your birthday so I can buy you a present), this does not take away your knowledge of when you were born. Of course, an individual can take a Ron Swanson approach and never divulge personal information to anyone, including social media companies. This preference is acceptable, but Ron Swanson then does not then feel like he "must have" a birthday present. 

Further, we quickly run into the issue of who owns data if we give that it can be owned. Who owns my birthday? Clearly,  I would have a stake in it. Would my parents as well? What about my aunts, uncles, and grandparents present at my birth? Who owns my interest? If my wife happens to see me googling "cool amphibians for sale" and then buys me an axolotl, can I sue her? Of course not. These might seem ridiculous but in fact we use other people's data constantly. Did you ask your mother's permission before using her maiden name for a security question? Of course not.

Data mining is truly one of the greatest achievements of mankind. Not only can we trade our data for unprecedented access to information, but we can also benefit from target ads that do not waste our time. We access all of these services free of charge! I do not wish to make the Big Tech companies out as some benevolent force that we should thank. Instead we should see the trade we are making as any other. We should still monitor them to make sure they keep their end of the bargain. We should investigate them to ensure they are collecting only what they are in their Terms and Conditions. We should seek clarification on legalese or computer jargon where there is any. We should enter into these contracts with as much thought and distrust that we do when buying a used car. But we certainly should not use violence to prohibit these kinds of mutually beneficial arrangements. 


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