Friday, February 12, 2010

Putting a Price on "Free" Information

Those who have decided that they have heard the information-wants-to-be-free barbarism too many times will probably enjoy a report by Jo Wade on the BBC News Web site under the title "Paying the price for a free web." In many ways this report reflects the spirit of Robert Greenwald's documentary about Wal-Mart, whose subtitle was The High Cost of Low Price. The IMDb page for this 2005 film summarizes it with the tagline, "It will change the way you think, feel - and shop…." Wade clearly believes that it is about time we change the way we think and feel about how we use the Internet. The basic argument is the usual one: Most Internet users do not realize how much personal information they are revealing to others. The value of Wade's report is the way in which its conclusion reduces this situation to terms as clear as those Greenwald had invoked in making his case against Wal-Mart:
Every day Google gathers millions of search terms that help them refine their search system and give them a direct marketing bonanza that they keep for months.

Every week Facebook receives millions of highly personal status updates that are kept forever and are forming the basis of direct advertising revenue.

Every month free newspapers plant and track a cookie tracking device on your computer that tells them what your range of interests are and allows them to shape their adverts and in the future, even content around you.

So you're not just being watched, you're being traded. The currency has changed.

The currency is now information - your information. Businesses can use that information to make big money.

Daily we hand over the minutiae of our lives in return for a convenient and free web.
As an observer of technology, I have railed for some time against the way in which Customer Relationship Management (CRM) technology has turned "desubjectivized" customers by turning them into objects that are manipulated and processed by software. Wade has framed the conclusion of this report in a way that takes this argument to the next level: The Internet user is no longer "just" an object; the user is a commodity. Now for some time there are have arguments about the extent to which the ruling class has turned the rest of the world into a slave class through mechanisms such as that of a "consciousness industry;" but a commoditized individual is nothing more than a slave. One no longer needs a consciousness industry to keep that individual from failing to recognize his/her enslaved state. One need only dole out some kind of gratification, such as "free information!"

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