I read today that Facebook values each user at $20 per year. That may be a figure for US users, but it will do for now. The $20 is dwarfed by our value to Google, which makes about six times as much ad revenue from its users, so perhaps we average $120 per year on Google. If you search for information on something expensive (like a rare drug for your life-threatening disease) then your value to Google jumps enormously, as they sell your details to the vendors and you get deluged with ads for rare drugs.

So for Facebook, there are 1,600,000,000 users worldwide – one in six people on earth. That’s 1.6 billion people’s personality profiles, demography, geography, habits, personal history and preferences divided into the amount of advertising revenue generated, I guess. Each person is, of course, only targeted with a tiny proportion of all the advertising FB carries – after all, why would I want to see ads right wing political organisations in America, for instance? That means our value can be split among those advertisers whose suggested posts and FB Ads clutter up our news feed.  When I advertise my small business, I pay about 30-40 cents per click through to my site, and as little as about 0.01 cents per ‘impression’ – the chance to put my promotion in front of someone on their screen, albeit for the moment it takes for them to scroll past it. My moment of exposure takes place during each user’s half-hour a day spent wading thought the poo that occupies most of FB – those fatuous videos and viral platitudes. Viral refers to infectious spreading…

So, about 30 minutes per day of each person’s attention. But I assume that $20 is annual, so we’re each effectively earning 10.9 cents per hour for Facebook and in return we’re getting lots of garbage interspersed with personally useful, sometimes valuable, insights and connections.  Would you pay 5.5 cents per day to use Facebook if you didn’t EVER have your personal information stored, or used to sell you things?  If the average number of searches I make on Google is 10 per day, then I’m worth 3.2 cents per search to them in ad revenue.  Assuming they alter the results of every search I make, based on who wants to advertise to me, then for that 3.2 cents, I’m getting distortions to the ‘truth’ of what’s available on and through the internet. My searches and your searches using the same search criteria produce different results.  Would you pay 3.2 cents per search to have the results untainted? Do you really want to see the same world I see?

So let’s say we all agree that paying for the internet is better than being controlled by it. Can you reverse what has become established as a currency? Your identity in exchange for free access to a substitute for personal interaction, free access to some parody of reality?  Would you switch if you could?  After all, it’s only a matter of them offering you a choice – the advertising model or the subscription model – micro-bill me for ‘pay-as-you-go’ truth or spoon-feed me the bigoted pap for free.

Hang on.  This blog is not personal interaction – it’s a diatribe spouted in the privacy of my own head. But once I press ‘publish’, it’s linked to my social media, and FB and Twitter lead people to read it, and those people might comment, and so it becomes a social, not to say personal, interaction of sorts.  I have communicated with my Friends (not to say friends) for a fee which I haven’t paid in cash but in identity exploitation.  Let’s say the extract of this blog post is read by 100 Friends on their news feeds – that being a proportion of everyone who links to me – the rest either skip over it, or more likely don’t go onto FB at the right time of day to have it in the top eighteen inches of stuff they’re prepared to wade through in their 30 minutes.  Now suppose I boost this post, so that I am buying the exposure to a much larger audience of people whose thinking I want to influence.  Maybe they’re undecided voters in an election, or political extremists in their closets waiting for guidance.  Do the algorithms vet my intentions and assess my advertising worth?  Do they apply their own ‘political weighting’ to the import of my message?  I’m going to sway voters towards a regime that supports low corporate tax rates. I’m going to engage sufferers from expensive diseases to follow my blog – now that’s going viral!  My value to FB and Google might go up so much that they’re prepared to give me free exposure, rather than me having to pay for it… hang on, that’s what they’re already doing in listing ‘top stories’ over ‘most recent’ stories on peoples’ walls, and in manipulating the Google rankings.

Maybe I’ll de-couple from this technology and write hand-written letters which I’ll post to my friends (not to say Friends) and that will generate revenue for An Post which will ensure that the postman keeps his job and spends his hard-earned in the economy and his income taxes will underwrite the Irish infrastructure, and An Post will make profits which will attract corporation taxes within the country, rather than in the cloud which Google and FB occupy. Maybe I will re-gain my identity control. Maybe not.

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Doing the Business

He wants to delay the Board meeting because he hasn’t put in the time to prepare for it, because he has another job to attend to and even though this company should be taking all his attention, he is unable to give it. He does the other job because he needs the money because this company isn’t making any. The other job involves working for the man who has invested in this company also, so he is trapped. This man is paying him less than the market rate, which means he is working for too little to allow his company the oxygen it needs, or to allow him to replace himself in this company. He will delay the Board meeting and send signals to the Directors that he is not able to support the little green shoot which this company is. He doesn’t want to send these signals because this is his little experiment, his departure from the claustrophobia of corporate life. He doesn’t want the little green shoot to wither because he has spent his savings and re-mortgaged his house to get it started. He is going to deliver a failure, and it won’t be his fault. Well, not altogether. He made a choice to take in the investor, as a last-ditch attempt to keep his little green shoot alive, to give it water. He didn’t see the tangle he was creating when he took in the investment, and for that, it is his fault. He didn’t stand firm on his business fees with the investor, or on his own time, because he was indebted, because his family was moving into rented accommodation. It is also be the fault of the investor, who has starved the company of income because he invested in order to acquire the resources and not the activities of the company. This man can afford to lose his investment, and he has extracted his pint of blood already, so he can walk away. But he is being short-sighted because he could so easily pay the market rate for what he is getting, and by doing so, feed the little green shoot and allow the company to grow. He owns his share of that growth, so his investment would pay dividends. But he is not focusing on the little green shoot. He is focusing on his own business and what this company can do for it.
This impending failure is unnecessary. For the want of a little more support, the green shoot will not grow. For the want of water, this man will lose his self esteem. His family will lose their respect. His business will fail.

I designed yet another albatross which I knew, from the moment I opened the New Blank Document and started to type the headline, would not fly. It was a big and complex study collecting a swathe of sectoral information. It assessed ongoing awareness and tracked response to this and that and the other, and the pathway to purchase, and brand engagement, and uncle Tom Cobbley’s nuts. It wouldn’t fly because it was designed by one tired has-been who had done this thing many times before, and would be offered to executives who don’t have budgets by another tired has-been who doesn’t understand what it is he is offering. If it were in great demand, if it would be a success, the market would have demanded it, or someone else would be busy making money out of it.
So why did I design it? Because the second tired has-been needed something to hang on to. He’d been pulled from his comfortable job as an advertising sales manager, selling printed ads in printed magazines, and asked, no told, to sell concepts to people without budgets. His past was chequered and his profitability in question. It’s what happens to has-beens. The gradually fade out. Their light which once shone brightly is dimmed and those around them are cast in shadow. The second has-been, in his big Mercedes, which is already six years old, is not stupid. He knows the writing is on the wall. This, in fact, is his last chance. He is at sea. He has been in to meetings and made the right noises, smiled and joked with his clients. He’s tapped his contacts, chased his ‘friends’ and had his meetings and it has resulted in too little. So this albatross would give him something concrete to talk about. It would allow him to hold up his head in budgeting meetings and perhaps find one or two clients with deeper pockets who wanted to please, or more likely wanted something to justify their own lives.
You could have said ‘no’. You could have explained the cyclicity of failure to the second tired has-been and asked him to hang up his hat. You could have sat down and written your novel, or thrown your pots. You could have said ‘enough is enough’. But you’d have been denying your value, your status as a man who is ‘needed’. You’d have been giving in to the cynicism of a has-been who knows in his heart that this albatross won’t fly.

Questions of human value

Is this new world really about society weighing the benefits of cost-efficiency (online shopping for instance), and the reduction in personal suffering through software agent assisted decision-making (less effort in choosing) against the potential for abuse, and the removal of privacy?
As we move into Web 3, and driverless cars and Google-assisted decision-making, are we losing the ability to think as individuals? Will we wake up one day and find our powers of reasoning have become vestigial? Is it already happening? Which reminds me of that philosopher’s quip: To do is to be: Kant, to be is to do: Sartre, Do-be-do-be-do: Sinatra. But seriously. I wonder whether we are less able to reason since so much is now guided about (a) the selection of material on which we base our decisions, and (b) the fact that we no longer interact as much face to face, or on the phone, so we lose the ability to recognise clues in each other. Against that, Mr Darcy had perhaps only one or two complex decisions to make, and certainly didn’t make them based on the breadth of information now available. Your search results and mine, for the same search requirements, differ. I’ve heard outraged Googlers on this subject, but then your perceptions and mine differ, and your bigotry and mine differ, so what’s the difference? Society maybe has become an outdated concept.
As we move from being a flock of sheep to an infinite series of marketing targets, we are all disaggregated online voters whose democratic choices are established in some absolutely fair online state, where Twitter reports what is trending, not based on target marketing to clusters, but on absolute statistics.
But can distributed processing models which don’t have centralised economic drivers compete with the overwhelmingly attractive technologies brought to us through global businesses – Google Glass, driverless cars or whatever? I know people who believe fervently in co-operative business models where no centralised controller exists. But in the meantime, all this new technology has to be paid for with the ‘human value’ I’m talking about. It’s hard to see these being rejected in favour of ‘driverless’ societies? If they can be, what will be the force which pushes us to these co-operatives – could it be a belief in their good? Is this the source of sects and religious fundamentalism?
I think it’s simpler than all that. I think it’s about hyper-local communities (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperlocal). We’ve got to start (and finish) with what we can conceptualise and what we can care about. We don’t mind being treated as individuals if the entity doing the treating has a face, has a personality and a ‘value’. We can cope with our chosen community demanding our attention, and wealth, and in return, delivering us with a sense of belonging.

On human value

The question I have is: what is human value in the modern world? I’m not trying to measure the importance of a life, the amount of love or hate it takes to weigh someone, but I’m asking how we equate the value of people as units of tradable commodity in the cyberspace society we spend more and more time in, and how relevant or acceptable this currency is? Advertisers can now bid on my ‘eyes’ in the micro-seconds between my choosing to visit a site and it opening in my browser, based on how relevant my eyes are to their market, based on my online behaviour and profile. If they like me enough, at the right price, I get served their message. If not, someone else does. That isn’t me as an individual, it’s me as a unit of currency. In fact, the word currency sort of means ‘relevance now’…

How about Facebook’s Likes and Friends, traded as a cybercurrency that devalues the real world, replacing offline concepts of friendship and liking people. No? I think so. The problem with both the words Friend and Like, is that the Facebook process of linking people without their consent simply by computer-driven association has destroyed their original meaning for the online world. The ‘clicks’ sweatshops of Bangladesh or Uruguay which pay miniscule amounts of money to people to set up FB accounts and Like specific clients’ sites, devalues even the paltry personal ‘Friends’ likes. And now we can even auto-emote when we like a post. And for all those self-righteous conscientious objectors who aren’t on FB, think about the 1.2 billion people who are and feel superior.
However, FB doesn’t see us as its customers. We are its currency, and through sophisticated analysis of our characteristics, we are its tradable value, and we have helped it to become so valuable it can ‘launder’ this income by buying almost any company it wishes, building itself into a monolyth with immense power. Alongside FB are Google, Twitter and Yahoo, and a much longer ‘B’ list. Their process of evaluating us, using our predictable behaviour and exploiting it for wealth and power is well known and understood. But it’s only just begun. Once Apple’s watch reports on our unconscious physiological responses 24/7 (galvanic skin response while feeling positive or negative towards someone for instance, heart-rate when shopping?) and links this to an advertising model which push technology allows, we’ll all be teased with “Go on, you know you fancy her, and I can tell you she fancies you – she’s got a raised heart-rate” texts, or maybe we just have the phone on vibrate in our trousers pocket!
There is an argument that we should be paid ‘license fees’ for use of our information, and we should be able to opt in and opt out of the game. But anyone who uses a computer and the internet doesn’t have that choice, unless you’re a lawyer used to reading the small print of Google’s T&Cs when you download Chrome or whatever.
Some people see the targeting as good for their lives, and are happy to sacrifice privacy in exchange for the ‘help’ of a software agent which acts as personal adviser by filtering the information they receive. When I say ‘some people’ I think I mean most people in their teens or twenties who have grown up knowing how to find things out, rather than knowing things, who’ve passed on the responsibility for truth to Google.
Others are fighting rearguard and possibly hopeless battles to avoid being ‘classified and stored’. When I say ‘Others’ I’m referring to an increasingly small group of off-liners and paranoid techies.
SO what is going to happen and what do we care?
Here’s a few things to add to the pot (flavouring?)
1. We all exhibit physical, historic and indisputable characteristics which are recorded either with our own knowledge and consent (eg our weight), or by law (eg our date of birth) or perhaps through non-directive methods (eg we are photographed, our fingerprints are captured) in which case our knowledge and consent are (deemed) not necessary.
2. We exhibit behavioural characteristics in public or online which are effectively deemed ‘in the public domain’ or at the very least, in someone else’s domain (eg Facebook). This data does not belong to the individual once he or she has signed up to the service.
3. Information about us is captured in a non-directive fashion, in our everyday lives through our habits (eg shopping receipts, CCTV) and increasingly through our interaction with everyday objects (cash machine, mobile phone) and through the use of sophisticated algorithms or Pattern Recognition Data Agents, we are profiled. These Data Agents are becoming pervasive and soon we will be able to buy web-enabled everyday objects, even disposable ones, such as packaging, which will ensure that the data capture is universal. Will our bedsheets report on our sex lives, our toilet rolls on our bowel movements and tears?
4. This data is stored for groups and populations allowing normative statistics to be produced, and allowing individual divergence to be recorded. Are you part of the normal distribution, or are you ‘on the edge of social norms? How do you feel about being in or out of the fold? In principle, all databases are made up of individual profiles and can be drilled for personal information, but usually, this is not what pays for their creation… or is it? LinkedIn operates a personalised revenue model for recruitment, one of its main income earners, not an advertising model for group targeting like Facebook operates. Undoubtedly, the individual profile information is a tradable commodity for law enforcement, creditworthiness, employee vetting, and potentially for insurability. But will we be able to buy it for dating sites, for spying? Sure Snowdon has a clear view on that.
5. We’re moving from Web 2 to Web 3 right now. Web 3.0 could be defined as: “A supposed third generation of Internet-based services that collectively comprise what might be called ‘the intelligent Web’ — such as those using semantic web, microformats, natural language search, data-mining, machine learning, recommendation agents, and artificial intelligence technologies — which emphasize machine-facilitated understanding of information in order to provide a more productive and intuitive user experience.” Lost?
Have you got a smart phone which reminds you that you’re going to be late for that meeting if you don’t leave home now, because there’s a traffic jam on the road you’ll be taking? Do you get offered things you like, because you’ve bought things like them before?
In the Web 3 environment where inter-related (mashed up) databases create multivariate analyses of populations and groups, various aspects of our lives can be mapped and modelled and group charateristics defined. This is the source of predictive modeling for behaviour and the resurgence of psychographics provides a core tool in Big Data.
6. The ‘people who bought this also like these’ widget demonstrates massive efficiencies in sifting the world’s stimulae. It both limits/stereotypes us and helps us through the maze. The core of each cluster is very cohesive, and at its fringes, it is blurred into the next. You only have to see what books you’re offered on Amazon to know that after the first 20 or 50, they become less ‘similar’
7. We are automatically selected to belong to a group or not (or some gradation of this) based on correlation co-efficients and on this basis, the selection of information provided to us is controlled. This is called ontology. The maths pass no value judgement on which group one fits into, unlike humans who apply ‘weights’ based on their own prejudices, only on how closely one’s characteristics match one group’s or another’s. Fine, but what happens when an algorithm decides who is an extremist and who is not – who is a person of interest and who is not? And in the world of artificial intelligence, where everyone sets objectives for machines which ‘decide’ how to act in order to achieve those objectives, we’re not going to be judged humanely, mercifully. Seen Ex Machina?
8. The variety of factors which can be included in multivariate analysis is increasing exponentially. It is no longer simply demographics, reported behaviour and ‘stated attitudes’ which are fed into the number-cruncher, but also longitudinal non-directive tracking of behaviour (location, speed of movement etc), and in future it will include subliminal/biological responses (eg radiant heat patterns, GSR, heart-rate and blood sugar levels etc)
9. Ontologies, or clusters are automatically generated, and can be named by people who evaluate them and ‘brand them’ (Generation Y, Yuppies etc) but they exist without being named, and we recognise them quickly, because that is how humans make decisions – predicting the behaviour of individuals by associating them (pigeon-holing) with approximate stereotypes. Every moment we decide how someone might act, based on their physiognomy, or their context, their non-verbal communication and so on.
10. In the main, these online databases and analyses are centralised, in the hands of the largest suppliers of commercial goods and services (eg Google). These organisations employ Consumer Insights Managers to use the outputs of these Big Data tools to build marketing campaigns which more and more finely target individuals in small groups, based on prediction of behaviour. Hell, marketing is about customer engagement, and nobody wants to be treated as one of the masses. Individualisation of campaigns will be characterised by ad boxes which alter as you walk past them, showing items which only you might want. Remember that ’70s classic, Fahrenheit 451, and the TV show which allowed each viewer to choose the ending they wanted by pressing the button?
11. This ‘Semantic Web’, in which various aspects of humanity can be cross-analysed against various others to establish predictions of normative behaviour, which in turn can be cross-matched against individual responses, will become increasingly accessible through Open Policy Networks. These OPNs will allow us to conduct our own analyses, to include our own database tools in our own websites. They are driven by the democratic/socialist principles that everyone has a right to share in this new power, and protected by the warmhearted belief that we can somehow license our data for use or not. The battle lines between centralised control (big brother) in the hands of increasingly powerful global commercial groups and distributed control often in the hands of ‘disruptive innovation’ groups like the Bitcoin movement is evolving.
12 One more dimension. A new technology called CRISPR allows chromosomes to be cut and repaired to remove and replace specific genes. Sounds very ‘laboratory’ scifi, but it’s worth noting that not only can you buy a home CRISPR kit online (not sure whether it works, but at $130 a pop, might be worth reprogramming the kids) but this has to be seen in the context of Intel’s new DNA-based chips which will replace silicon chips soon. Too much science for my ignorant rant, but read up on both and you’ll see that Web 3 and AI and genome science are converging.