Media, Risk, Regulation, and Utopia

The NY Times has a special section today on privacy. One piece proclaims “My Phone Knows All, and That’s Great“. It’s satire, but satire so dry that in our Poe’s Law dominated age it is destined to be taken as sincere opinion over and over and over again. Indeed, it’s not so different from sincere arguments I hear from students all the time: “I wasn’t using my data, why do I care if Google vacuums it all up for ads? What bad thing is going to happen to me if I get a targeted ad, anyway?”

The honest answer to that question is “probably nothing.” Probably nothing bad will happen to you. It’s important to point out, however, this is also the honest answer to the question “what bad thing will happen if I don’t put my baby in a rear-facing car seat?” Probably nothing. Probably you will go about your day and never have a car accident and the baby will be fine. That’s usually what happens. Almost all the time. Almost.

But of course, that “almost,” that small sliver of a chance that something bad could happen (even though, at the scale of n=1, it probably, won’t) scaled to 300 million people, means thousands of children saved by rear-facing car seats. Thus we regulate, and mandate that manufacturers produce safe car seats, and parents install them. It’s an awkward, imperfect, ungainly system. It’s understandable that, as they spend their 20th awkward minute in the driveway trying to install an ungainly child safety device, many parents may briefly entertain conspiracy theories that the whole system is a profit making ploy on the part of the Gracco and Chicco corporations. Nonetheless, we do it, and it basically works.

In the same way, online surveillance is probably mostly harmless at an individual level. At a systemic level, the harms become more plausible. Some individuals may be uniquely likely to be harmed by ads that trigger traumas or prey off of vulnerabilities (think of the ads targeted at soon-to-be parents, at the sick, at the depressed). At a society-wide level, better slicker ads could further fuel the churn of over-consumption that seems to exacerbate, if not cause, so many social ills.

Of course, we’ve dealt with potential harms of ads before. At the dawn of Television, Groucho Marx would open “You Bet Your Life” with an integrated ad for Old Gold cigarettes. We eventually decided that both tobacco ads and integrated ads were bad ideas, and regulated against them (though the latter is on its way back). TV was still able to use advertising as a business model for funding a fundamentally public good (broadcast, over-the-air TV, which anyone could pick up with an antenna, an idea that seems vaguely scandalous in today’s premium-subscriptions-for-everything world). In the same way, we could put regulatory limits on what advertisers can do with our data, how they can target ads, etc. It wouldn’t kill the business model. Oh, the platforms and the ad folks will scream bloody murder about it, because their margins will suffer, but they will survive.

I, personally, would have preferred a slightly more radical option: call it the BBC model for internet content, where every purchase of an internet-connected device would pay a small fee towards a collective fund to pay internet content providers. Again, this is a reasonable adaptation of public-goods provisioning models from the broadcast age. A flawed mechanism, but one we know to work.

Fifteen years ago, there were serious proposals for such a plan, which would have avoided the era of targeted advertisers (and the surveillance system they have built) entirely. It never really got any traction, though. Instead, there was an idea in the air that the Internet Was Different. That it would be a mistake to try the techniques of the past on this radical, decentralized medium. That, rather than developing a centralized mechanism for collecting and distributing fees as a business model for content creation, it would be better to allow flexible, horizontal, associations of volunteers to build things on their own. These volunteers could build amazing things for free, just look at Wikipedia! Clay Shirky argued, that if we could just harness some of the cognitive surplus being wasted on the “heat sink” of Television we could easily build “100 Wikipedia projects per year.”

But, of course, we didn’t build hundreds or thousands of Wikipedias. We built one Wikipedia, and we built Facebook. In retrospect, the radically decentralized Utopia seems like a cover story for the advertising free-for-all we were actually building.

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