Luxury is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed. Such, at any rate, is the provocative argument put forward by Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist. Recently dubbed “the Varian rule”, it states that to predict the future, we just have to look at what rich people already have and assume that the middle classes will have it in five years and poor people will have it in 10. Radio, TV, dishwashers, mobile phones, flatscreen TVs: Varian sees this principle at work in the history of many technologies.
So what is it that the rich have today that the poor will get in a decade? Varian bets on personal assistants. Instead of maids and chauffeurs we would have self-driving cars, housecleaning robots and clever, omniscient apps that can monitor, inform and nudge us in real time. As Varian puts it: “These digital assistants will be so useful that everyone will want one and the scare stories you read today about privacy concerns will just seem quaint and old-fashioned.” Google Now, one such assistant, can monitor our emails, searches and locations and constantly remind us about forthcoming meetings or trips, all while patiently checking real-time weather and traffic in the background.
Varian’s juxtaposition of dishwashers with apps might seem reasonable but it’s actually misleading. When you hire somebody as your personal assistant, the transaction is relatively straightforward: you pay the person for the services tendered – often, in cash – and that’s the end of it. It’s tempting to say that the same logic is at work with virtual assistants: you surrender your data – the way you would surrender your cash – for Google to provide this otherwise free service.
But something doesn’t add up here: few of us expect our personal assistants to walk away with a copy of all our letters and files in order to make a buck off them. For our virtual assistants, on the other hand, this is the only reason they exist. In fact, we are getting shortchanged twice: first, when we surrender our data – eventually, it ends up on Google’s balance sheet – in exchange for relatively trivial services, and, second, when that data is then later used to customise and structure our world in a way that is neither transparent nor desirable.
This second life-shaping feature of data as a unit of exchange is not yet well understood. However, it’s precisely this ability to shape our future even after we surrender it that turns data into an instrument of domination. While cash, with its usual anonymity, has no history and little connection to social life, data is nothing but a representation of social life – albeit crystallised into kilobytes.
Google Now can work only if the company behind it manages to bring vast chunks of our existence – from communication to travel to reading – under its corporate umbrella. Once there, these activities can suddenly acquire a new economic dimension: they can finally be monetised.
Nothing of the kind happens to today’s rich when they hire a personal assistant. Here, the balance of power is clear: the master is dominating the servant – and not the other way around, as is the case with Google Now and the poor. In a way, it’s the poor who are the true “virtual assistants” to Google – in helping it to amass the data that the company later monetises. Varian never asks the obvious question: why it is that the rich need personal assistants? Could it be – as seems likely – that it’s not because they like personal assistance but because they like free time?
However, to frame the argument this way would be to reveal that the poor, perhaps, are not going to be enjoying as much free time as the rich, even if they get all the latest gadgets from Google. The dialectic of empowerment works in mysterious ways: yes, the smart devices could save us time – so that we can spend it working to pay our higher, personalised insurance costs, or send that extra work-related email, or fill in an extra form that is required by some newly computerised bureaucratic system. Facebook, Google’s closest competitor, pulls the same trick with connectivity.
Its Internet.org initiative, which now operates in Latin America, south-east Asia and Africa, was ostensibly launched to promote digital inclusion and get the poor in the developing world online. Online they do get but it’s a very particular kind of “online”: Facebook and a few other sites and apps are free but users have to pay for everything else, often based on how much data their individual apps consume. As a result, few of these people – remember, we are talking about very poor populations – are likely to afford the world outside Facebook’s content empire.
Here is the Varian rule at work again: on the face of it, the poor do get what the rich have already – internet connectivity. But the key difference is not hard to spot. Unlike the rich, who pay for their connectivity with their cash, the poor pay for it with their data – the data that Facebook would one day monetise in order to justify the entire Internet.org operation. We are not dealing with a charity here, after all. Facebook is interested in “digital inclusion” in much the same manner as loan sharks are interested in “financial inclusion”: it is in it for the money.
Any service provider – be it in education, health, or journalism – would soon realise that to reach the millions using Internet.org, it had better launch and operate its apps inside Facebook rather than outside. In other words, the poor might eventually end up getting all those nice services that the rich already have, but only with their data – their congealed social life – covering the costs of it.
The free connectivity that Facebook offers to the developing countries is essentially a giant financial derivative that finances the development of its infrastructure: Facebook gives these countries connectivity in exchange for the right to monetise the lives of their citizens once they have earned enough money.
The Varian rule, it seems, needs a major correction: to predict the future, simply look at what the oil companies and banks have been doing for the past two centuries and extrapolate to Silicon Valley, our new default provider of infrastructure for all basic services. In that future, alas, virtual assistants would not be enough – we would be in dire need of virtual psychoanalysts.
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