The final nail in the coffin of value is finding the right price of data.
The rule that underlies the Zeitgeist of late-stage capitalism is “everything has a price,” the corollary or simple inversion of Milton Friedman’s cherished, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” In an article titled, “What if people were paid for their data,” The Economist reminds us that the data we, as users, provide when surfing the web has built fortunes for the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. It represents value created by users who, if they were wise and sufficiently organized, could eventually be monetized on their behalf, though it’s hardly something these billionaires are likely promote.
But it could become a serious issue. The article pointed out that “Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, recently called for a price to be put on personal data, asking researchers to come up with solutions.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The precise mathematical measure of utility and desirability. An interchangeable synonym of the word “value” in a society where everything, including ideas, are seen as possessions and monetary equivalence is the only determining factor of worth
Oscar Wilde provided the best insight into price when his character Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere’s Fan described a cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” We live in a world where price is now the accepted measure of all value.
One of the great innovations of the consumer society was a television quiz program, created in 1956 and still running: The Price is Right. It functions as a pedagogically effective means of teaching viewers to focus exclusively on “the price of everything.” It also prefigures the trend that social media has taken, which is to turn all communication into a support for promotion and advertising and the web itself into a publicly-funded platform designed to make Amazon — the ultimate universal display case of comparatively priced consumer objects — obscenely rich.
Very recently in the news we learned that the price of Facebook’s stock declined in a single day by $120 billion, 19% of its market cap. Zuckerberg was still a multibillionaire at the end of the day. But we have recently observed wunderkind Elizabeth Holmes drop from $4.5 billion to zero in a very short span of time. Officially it was her worth that disappeared, but in everyone’s mind it is also her price. On the other hand, Apple has now been proclaimed the first company to be worth $1 trillion.
When a stock drops or rises, it doesn’t mean that assets have been destroyed or created. It means that some people don’t think other people will pay the same amount for it or vice versa. In a certain sense everything in human society now conforms to the same rules as the stock market. The movement around the object determines its price and, therefore, its value.
The article in The Economist speculates about a historical trend — the union movement spawned in the 19th century — that the author, optimistically, thinks may be the key to fixing a fair price on people’s data and allowing people to price themselves into the market. But the description offered in the article looks like just another variation on the gig economy, where every individual tries to sell his or her own data to the powerful companies that will exploit it. “Their mornings might start with checking a dashboard provided by their data-labour union.” This isn’t unionizing; it’s uberization. What they call “data-labour union” is an Uber-like platform that they will be dependent on.
The article is also unduly optimistic about the quality of the remunerated data it claims will be required because future artificial intelligence “algorithms will need to be fed a higher-quality diet of digital information, which people may only provide if they get paid.” But just like “fake news,” we are likely to see a flood of “fake data” if it can be monetized. The clever will undoubtedly find a way of producing and delivering it to cash in. What is data anyway? It certainly isn’t truth.
To aid our understanding, there actually is an instructive historical trend that The Economist could have cited and nearly did, having stated that it “would not be the first time that an important economic resource had gone from simply being used to being owned and traded.” Historians know this process as “enclosure” of the commons, or the progressive privatization of commonly shared agricultural lands that permitted communities to thrive or at least survive during hard times. Enclosure transformed something that had value (because shared by the community) but no price into something that had only a price — but no direct value — because it was owned by a single person who might leave it fallow. The community, who valued it, no longer had access to it.
We’ve reached the stage where we don’t even know if we have access to our own data because those who collect it control it and hide it. We don’t even know where it is. In some sense, the “price of progress” is allowing people themselves to be “enclosed.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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