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The Digital Fuel of Today

Updated: May 31, 2021

Nandini Gupta & Krish Kothari.

In the advent of the World Wide Web, industries moved towards the most logical decision to ‘adopt & adapt’ to the era’s new general-purpose technology. The internet allowed humans to communicate globally in a matter of seconds, while businesses used it to sell their products online and reach out to a larger audience, means of socialization became easier with platforms like Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. However, as we went on to integrate all our day-to-day tasks on the web, something else was also happening; something insignificant to us was being created in the real time. But as time went by, we realised it had the potential to drive global powers and create major shifts in economic scenarios.

The by-product of digitization was ‘Data’, which has now become the elemental part of who we are. As we trail the internet with decisions about the food we want to eat, the movies we want to watch, or who we wish to place in power for the next general elections; we leave behind breadcrumbs of information. This trail or digital footprint defines us online. Furthermore, since most of our reality is now shifting to digital space, what implications does this have for the global economy and our day-to-day lives?

With increased digitization, data became more and more abundant. There came newer ways to learn, perform and integrate tasks, we started to capitalise on this data and embed it with the current knowledge-driven economy. But what does it mean for the world? When this data is monetised and the digital identity of who we are is put up for bid?

Thraldom to the algorithm

As an increasing number of households and firms go digital everyday, the amount of data generated increases multifold. This leads to newer innovations in data management and data mining from big data farms. The most common way by which we submit to these algorithms is when social media apps asks use to read their awfully long “terms & conditions” before they allow us to use the app; you are now stuck at a junction between two choices: whether to read the agreement and continue, or to skip reading the agreement and press ‘I agree’ button. This is a very common example where most of us succumb to the length of the text and thoughtlessly hand over our data. But for the most part, we are in an uncanny relationship with data giants who force our hand to share our data for free, while they thrive in a 56 billion dollar industry! And they aren’t planning to change that equation anytime soon.

Digital Subterfuge

You have a predetermined fate and A.I. knows it. The practice of collecting consumer behaviours to predict future behaviours dates back to 1998, but now, algorithms are getting increasingly better and better at predicting our behaviour. Generalised predictions are more complex to carry out as they require a move towards artificial general intelligence. However, within specific domains, predictions are progressively getting personalised. The eerily targeted ads we see on Facebook about the things we’ve searched on Amazon are just the beginning of a more thorough precognition that has started invading our lives. Search engines like Google collect information from all our connected devices and its AI algorithms use machine learning to gather all the actions we perform following our query. With the information mined, companies like Google use predictive analysis to make targeted individual-based predictions of our interests and wants. Companies like Amazon and Facebook manipulate the ‘facade of choice’ with elusive influential A.I techniques. This is a very crafty play on the principle of DAWs- Desire, Ability and Willingness to buy. They use a technique called ‘Social Listening’ to target groups of individuals by tracking their data, learning their ‘wants’ and ‘desires’, looking at what content receives the most positive engagements. This helps companies advertise their campaigns in front of the most receptive audience and thus slyly prompt them into being willing to use their ability to buy. So is the consumer’s freedom of choice established on free will or hard determinism? A satisfactory response to this remains elusive.

Restraint of trade

With constant developments in technological growth, there will always be the elite firms that rule the data-driven world. For the most part, we data producers are the ones to put those in market control. This happens with something known as a “data-network effect” wherein, the more people that use a particular system the more valuable it becomes and this leads to a bandwagon effect, eg. Google; the more keywords we input, the faster its AI algorithm learns, thereby creating a positive feedback loop and having a minimum error rate, i.e. Its predictions are highly accurate. This creates an impression of a highly efficient system and this is one of the reasons Google is considered to be the king of search engines. The same could be said about Amazon and Facebook. As data gives way for ‘vertical integration,’ which is the ability to reach different sectors with one brand, as we know Amazon started as an e-retail firm but now has deep pockets in the music and film industry, i.e. Amazon Prime video. Uber started as a firm for privatised public transport but then with the help of the data on its user it was able to vertically integrate into a food service, i.e. Uber eats. These are the few opportunities data brings to the table for firms to hold monopolies.

A way forward

There’s little doubt that data is a very valuable resource and that companies are capitalising on this resource. This decade saw the rise of surveillance capitalism. Even though consumers generate this data , they have very little authority over how it is utilised. There is an urgent need to take control of our information and demand greater transparency. If we don’t, we may end up in a totalitarian world where our destinies are preordained and shaped by machine intelligence resting in the hands of the rich and powerful few. This can only be changed if consumers become savvier. A change in how companies and consumers use and benefit from this data can be driven only by rising consumer awareness and concern, combined with stricter regulation norms. The world is on the cusp of revolutionizing how economies work through artificial intelligence, but the manner in which AI systems are developed need to be better understood due to the prime implications these technologies will have for society as a whole. We missed the boat to avoid a global techno-dystopia but we can still hop on to demand better from those in power, lest they lose access to what they need to survive- our data.

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