To truly appreciate just how we are served by the digital economy, we must revisit Damon Knight’s award-winning 1950 short story To Serve Man. Popularized by a beloved 1962 TV episode of The Twilight Zone, Knight’s tale tells of aliens coming to Earth to bring humans “peace and plenty.” Courtesy of the aliens’ advanced technologies, we soon enjoy the global benefits of unlimited electrical power, inexhaustible food, and the end of warfare. And better yet, humans are invited to visit the aliens’ home planet, a galactic paradise.
Meanwhile, a skeptical person toils to decipher the aliens’ cryptic language, in order to read a purloined alien book and come to understand their motives for such astounding beneficence toward humankind. The book’s translated title is reassuring – “To Serve Man.” Only later is our intrepid translator able to decipher the book’s first paragraph, revealing that it is not a treatise on helping humanity. It’s a cookbook.
The digital revolution has indeed brought us benefits on a global scale, unimaginable just a few decades ago. The Internet informs us, social media connect us, and our apps and devices support us. All problems solved, right?
But something is wrong in our advanced-technology-paradise. The digital economy traffics in something of great value – our information – and we remain largely oblivious to the basis of our “bargain.” The signs are right there, in front of us, like a book waiting to be read. For example, consider this from The Atlantic:
Cayla is a doll with long hair, a tiny denim jacket, and little pink shoes. She also comes with a microphone, a Bluetooth app, and built-in voice-recognition technology. My Friend Cayla, as the product is called, can introduce herself and suggest fun activities. The label on her box reads “She has millions of things to say!” And she does. But who is she talking to? Could it be the CIA? Several years ago, consumer groups discovered that when somebody asks Cayla a question, the dialogue is stored on a server owned by Nuance Communications. That firm sold “voice biometric data” to the military and intelligence agencies. After discovering the privacy concerns surrounding My Friend Cayla in 2017, the German government banned the doll. (It is still available for purchase in the United States.)
Or this from the NY Times:
Or episode 2 of the superb new podcast So Bob, in which tech journalist Bob Sullivan and podscaster Alia Tavakolian unpack how one of those ubiquitous sleep apps creates countless audio files of the user while “sleeping,” without effective informed consent – and then charges premium fees to access the recordings.
The digital economy runs on our personal information, which we provide, day in and day out, for others to monetize. Yes, as the old saying goes, if you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product. But all too often we’re actually paying to be the product. And our data is what’s for dinner.
We can do better. We can be more aware about the apps and devices we use, and more vigilant and less trusting of the shiny new technologies that entice us. There’s a balance to be struck between using digital technology and being used by it.
Maybe – just maybe – if we pay more attention, then we’ll be more likely to be served rather than merely being served up. Perhaps then Alexa will stop laughing.