Silicon Valley has destroyed our ability to imagine other models for running and organizing our communication infrastructure. Forget about models that aren’t based on advertising and that do not contribute to the centralization of data on private servers located in America. To suggest that we need to look into other – perhaps, even publicly-provided alternatives –is to risk being accused of wanting to “break the Internet.” We have succumbed to what the Brazilian social theorist Roberto Unger calls “the dictatorship of no alternatives”: we are asked to accept that Gmail is the best and only possible way to do email, and that Facebook is the best and only possible way to do social networking.
But consider just how weird our current arrangement is. Imagine I told you that the post office could run on a different, innovation-friendly business model. Forget stamps. They cost money – and why pay money when there’s a way to send letters for free? Just think about the world-changing potential: the poor kids in Africa can finally reach you with their pleas for more laptops! So, instead of stamps, we would switch to an advertising-backed system: we’d open every letter that you send, scan its contents, insert a relevant ad, seal it, and then forward it to the recipient.
Sounds crazy? It does. But this is how we have chosen to run our email.In the wake of the NSA scandal and the debacle that is Healthcare.gov, trust in public institutions runs so low that any alternative arrangement – especially the one that would give public institutions a greater role – seems unthinkable. But this is only part of the problem. What would happen when some of our long cherished and privately-run digital infrastructure begins to crumble, as companies evolve and change their business models?
Now that our communication networks are in the hands of the private sector, we should avoid making the same mistake with privacy. We shouldn’t reduce this complex problem to market-based solutions. Alas, thanks to Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial zeal, privatization is already creeping in. Privacy is becoming a commodity. How does one get privacy these days? Just ask any hacker: only by studying how the right tools work. Privacy is no longer something to be taken for granted or enjoyed for free: you have to expend some resources to master the tools. Those resources could be money, patience, attention – you might even hire a consultant to do all this for you – but the point is that privacy is becoming expensive.
And what of those who can’t afford tools and consultants? How do their lives change? When the founder of a prominent lending start-up – the former CIO of Google, no less – proclaims that “all data is credit data, we just don’t know how to use it yet” I can’t help but fear the worst. If “all data is credit data” and poor people cannot afford privacy, they are in for some dark times. How can they not be anxious when their every move, their every click, their every phone call could be analyzed to predict if they deserve credit and at what rates? If the burden of debt wasn’t agonizing enough, now we’ll have to live with the fact that, for the poor people, anxiety begins well before they get the actual loan. Once again, one doesn’t have to hate or fear technology to worry about the future of equality, mobility and the quality of life. The “digital debate,” with its inevitable detours into cultural pessimism, simply has no intellectual resources to tackle these issues.