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: