One of the first lessons I learned when I worked in marketing was how much people love getting free things. Regardless of the product or service, give people something for free. Especially in selling business to business (B2B), offering the customer a month of free service—where they invested time in setting up our service and customizing it to their liking—felt like a dirty trick.
Looking at the number of services to which I'm beholden today, I don't pay a cent for my email, document collaboration, social networking, or accessing the vast and expanding universe of knowledge available today. Myspace, Gmail, and Facebook are case studies in how this illusion of "free" has come to dominate our society and operates to keep this system in place. In each of these services and myriad others, my information and privacy are the product—the price I pay daily. It's the price I've willingly paid for over a decade.
I find the problem here is twofold. The first component is our inherent misunderstanding that nothing can be free. There is no single economic model that assigns a zero value to any good or service that involves either resources or labor, let alone both. On the one hand, I find each of us culpable in the predicament we find ourselves today. Let me address the second component.
The second facet to the problem is that each of these companies, in one way or another, misled us into believing that whatever they offered was, in fact, free. In the case of Facebook, they sold us the bill of goods that their service was only interested in helping people connect online. The brilliance of Gmail was providing a friendly interface and a free email address, so we didn't have to set up personal email servers or deal with slower, more primitive email providers at the time—I'm looking at you, Hotmail and Yahoo.
Having an undergraduate degree in Computer Science and hearing the adage "privacy is a myth" repeated for four years, you'd think that I would have been a little wiser. I admit that these services duped me, and I was a willing participant!
I've joked several times in the past few years that Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc. is my overlord. Except it's not funny in 2020; this is the sad truth.
I would love to believe that there's a way to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle, but that's not the case. When it comes to the internet and data, there is no such thing as ephemeral. There remains a record of everything.
Did they lie to us? Absolutely. Is there any way that most of us can reclaim sovereignty to our identities and privacy? Uh, good luck—that's putting it mildly.
Each of us is a quantified user, many times over. Every account between our contributions and the analytics related to our usage is another reason we cannot merely disappear from the web and start from scratch.
Sadly, this same data is what continues to buoy the stock prices of many of these companies, not just Big Tech, while the economy itself is somewhere between depression and recession. We are the product, and there is plenty of incremental value that we willingly provide daily to increase these companies' valuations.
As these companies sell our data to advertisers—and they sure as hell do—they are literally selling us ourselves. Think about that when you click on that ad for a product similar to that recent post you just liked. Think about it.
I am no conspiracy theorist or communist—apparently, the latter is a derogatory label back in vogue. I may be a millennial, but I am not convinced that most people or institutions are out to get me. Instead, I have done enough research to know that capitalism and virtually all of our systems are carefully crafted to exploit those without power and reinforce white people who the disproportionately empower.
I would love to suggest that some congressional hearing will fix this. This problem is of global proportions—I'm talking about a systemic problem that infects the globe. If you believe I go too far in this assertion, think of the number of times that governments use one or any of these services to surveil on its law-abiding citizens. Think about the number of times that companies have used your voice or choices, activity, voice, or video to improve their product or service.
The incredible thing about this is that these companies convince us to purchase other products and services they base almost entirely on the data they have compiled from our use of their other products and services. We subscribe to services and buy products because we provide data hand over foot that enables them to continue customizing them for our needs.
To put it bluntly, we've paid for free services with our very freedom. In very real and tangible ways, we've forked over our freedom—personal information that we've not revealed in many of our closest relationships—in the interest of "free" services. We are both the suckers and the defrauded, as it's unfathomable that the general populous should understand the implications of the deals with each of the devils we have made and continue to make. Without going too far, the capitalism we have today makes this exchange both acceptable and encouraged—just look at the stock prices. This is not a system that requires our sympathy; none of these people are coming to save us.