In his book Who Owns the Future? Jaron Lanier proposes an interesting concept about the inequality of wealth behind the use of “free” information. His concept is very interesting because it identifies the misconception that large networking sites and organizations provide the users with as much value as they receive in monetary value form the users. These organizations solicit a vast amount of information from their users, eventually using this information for their own purposes and receiving monetary gain from the users. Additionally, the amount of people who actually receive the benefit of all this solicitation and manipulation are only a small number of people at the top of the organization. Lanier’s argument is very persuasive and representative of the disproportion of the use of “free” information.
The solicitation of information from users is also an invasion of privacy and intruding into people’s lives. When users submit their information to an organization such as Facebook or Instagram, they are releasing control of their privacy and opening themselves up to other unsolicited exposures. For example, when a user is logged into their Facebook account and browsing certain categories Facebook will make suggestions about sites and places they should visit online in relation to their browsing history. The user did not solicit these recommendations from Facebook but yet the users are still exposed to the suggestions, which if clicked will potentially result in monetary gain for Facebook. In his book Digital Labor Mark Andrejevic makes a terrific point about the invasion of privacy with the following statement “It is hardly controversial these days to observe that one of the dominant business models for the online economy relies upon consumers’ willing submission to increasingly detailed and comprehensive forms of monitoring” (Andrejevic, 149). Providing solicited information to large information truly only benefits the organization and not the user.
Another way a large organization can gather information about their users without the users’ realization is through data mining techniques such as software on mobile applications on smartphones and laptops. The companies and organizations have the ability to gather the data through covert data manipulation techniques. The sophisticated software the companies embed in their mobile applications and use on devices. Users of these devices are unaware their data is being collected in this manner and used for the benefit of the organization gathering the data. In his book Digital Cosmopolitans Ethan Zuckerman emphasis this point when he states “Like any technologies, media tools embody political assumptions made by their creators, consciously or otherwise. Facebook privileges connections to people you already know over people you might want to know” (Zuckerman, 270). The ability of organizations to data-mine their users’ information without the users consent or knowledge only promotes additional inequality.
One of the most difficult avenues of deciphering where the data is sent and retrieved in a large organization is related to the structure of the network. In a large network there is not a central region and the network can therefore resist attacks and destruction of the information (Castells, 6). A network is comprised of a range of different nodes and can simply shift the information from one node to another to resist an attack and easily transfer the data through the network for retention purposes (Castells, 6). The structure of the network makes it even more unequal for the users who can knowingly or unknowingly shared their data with the organization. The structure of a network propagates the organization’s ability to retain the data and continue using it for their own purposes. Therefore, if the user wants to remove their data from the identified network it makes the removal difficult and laborious.
However, there are solutions to the identified inequalities in the information age. In relation to the inequality Lanier states in his book, organizations soliciting information from their users to use for their own purposes and receiving monetary gain, a solution is for users to refrain from willingly divulging the information to these organizations. If there is more awareness of this inequality more users will be phobic of providing “optional” data asked for on digital forms. In the next inequality, invasion of privacy, users should have more options related to what they post or allow on the organization’s website. Many users are unaware of the ramifications of publically posting their personal information on a organizations website. If the organizations are required to provide the users with a greater understanding of how their data will be used it would prevent users from again willing providing the data. Users can prevent inequality with the covert software by avoiding sites known for data collection and sites which utilize cookies. Avoiding large social networks with unlimited amounts of nodes for data storage and collection will help users from providing data without the ability to retrieve and remove it later.
In conclusion, organizations collect data on individuals and use this data for their own purposes and monetary gain. This inequality found with data either knowingly or unknowingly submitted only benefits a few individuals in an organization who reside at the highest levels of the organization. The people lower in the organization and the users who submitted the data really do not receive adequate compensation as those people higher in the organization. The inequalities identified through the unfair use of user data are common place in today’s digital world. Users need to have more awareness of the implications of willingly providing data on organizations websites and databases. The implications of the organization using their data for monetary gain are very real and could have negative effects on the users.
- Andrejevic, Mark. Digital Labor: The Internet As Playground and Factory. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.
- Castells, Manuel. The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Edward Elgar Pub, 2004.
- Lanier, Jaron. Who Owns the Future? Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2013.
- Zuckerman, Ethan. Digital Cosmopolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn’t, and How to Rewire It. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.