Archive for May, 2016

Slavery, transparency and “personal” data

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

Slavery

Slavery means treating people like commodities to be bought and sold. For the philosopher Aristotle, slavery was perfectly normal, as he thought that some people simply lacked the ability to think correctly. He called them “living tools”, fit only for physical labor and dependent on others to tell them what to do.

Today, physical labor is not as valuable as it used to be, but our personal data has become very useful and valuable for many data companies. As the name indicates, they wouldn’t exist without it. Whereas we don’t buy and sell human beings in most – unfortunately not all – parts of the world anymore, there is a growing and very profitable market for our (?) personal data.

If Aristotle were alive today, he’d most probably conclude from observing human consumerist behavior that many are still not able to think correctly for themselves and continue to rely on others to tell them what to do.

I don’t know whether he would still call them “living tools”, as “living fools” might be more appropriate. We are masters of suppression, we ignore what we don’t want to see and hear.

Must we be forced to see, hear and face the facts and the truth?

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most ignorant of them all?

“For our improvement we need a mirror.”
(Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher)

Among other things, technological progress means that we don’t have to be put in iron chains anymore. Mental chains are a lot more efficient and subtle. And as long as we don’t think, we won’t feel them.

“It’s difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.”
(Voltaire, philosopher)

We are being spied out, exploited, sedated and incapacitated and we are letting it happen. If you’re not being spied upon in today’s world, you’re totally irrelevant. That’s the sad truth.

“What would you do, if you were accused of a murder
you had not committed ….. yet?”
(Minority Report, 2002)

Do we really wish to turn into digital data slaves, one-dimensional morons, willing to accept that the only good citizen-customer is the fully transparent voter-consumer, who obeys, i.e. does/consumes what s/he is being told?

“You will be assimilated. resistance is futile.”
(Borg Queen)

Total transparency resulting in total predictability, while great for the balance sheet of some, is definitely not the icing on humanity’s cake. Killing privacy and creating a market inhabited by totally predictable humans controlled by a few – presumably unpredictable ones – would be an enslaved market, an enslaved world.

It would not be a human world.

It would be a dangerous world.

“The future can be seen. Murder can be prevented. The guilty
punished before the crime is committed. The system is perfect.
It’s never wrong. Until it comes after you.”
(Minority Report, 2002)

Just imagine living in a glass house without having to pay any rent. Imagine that this glass house is located on Main Street in a big town. Unless you’re an exhibitionist, you probably wouldn’t be amused. As a matter of fact, you wouldn’t move in to start with.

Now imagine that everything said inside the glass house could be heard outside. Imagine your “generous” – no rent, remember? – landlord recording everything you say and do and selling that information to advertisers. Imagine these advertisers then putting up ads all around your house as well as inside and everywhere you go.

Inconceivable offline, but common practice online.

Last but not least, imagine moving around your house without any clothes on. You’d be arrested in no time.

Putting all of your private, personal information on public display online is more than welcome. Doing the same with your private parts is not, neither on- nor off-line.

Isn’t that hypocritical?

About time to throw some stones, don’t you agree?

Of course, data itself is not the problem and the misuse that we are currently experiencing doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use data at all to help solve big problems.

“Abusus non tollit usum.”
(Proverb)

But we do have to address the problem of how data is increasingly being gathered, stolen, exploited, traded, used, shared and – unfortunately – given away.

Nowadays, chances are that someone will have sold our mind – its content that is – before we have a chance to lose it.

I’m not a native speaker, but “sharing with” and “turning over to” don’t mean the same thing, or do they?

It goes without saying that real sharing existed in the good old days too. But as far as I can remember, it used to a lot more personal and valuable. And it involved a lot more trust than it does nowadays. For example, we didn’t just lend our highly cherished vinyl LP’s to just anyone. First, we made sure that we could trust the person, as well as her record player of course.

While we are slowly starting to realize that our personal data is a valuable currency, we remain rather clueless about a fair exchange rate. Not only that, but there is no central authority, something like a Federal Reserve Bank, either.

Speaking of banks, some claim that yesterday, it was true that whoever controlled a nation’s money, didn’t have to care about who made the laws.

Could it be that today, whoever controls a nation’s data doesn’t have to care about who makes the laws?

Could it be that tomorrow, whatever controls a nation’s data doesn’t have to care about what makes the laws?

And what about the future of nation states, governments and national laws, if – thanks to technology – this data is increasingly owned by transnational companies?

“Our business is not based on having information about you. You’re not
our product. Our products are these and these, and this watch, and
Macs and so forth. And so we run a very different company. I
think everybody has to ask, how do companies make their
money? Follow the money. And if they’re making
money mainly by collecting gobs of personal
data, I think you have a right to be worried.”
(Tim Cook, CEO Apple Inc.)

Instead of treating us like products, Apple’s CEO says that his company prefers to sell us great products. It sounds like a laudable strategy.

But can we really trust Apple?

How can we be sure?

Data, privacy and freedom

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

Ueberwachung

Today, we live in a totally commercialized and increasingly data-driven world. And we have seen that doing increasingly means consuming in the Age of Consumerism. Thanks to technology, corporations are more and more able to siphon off our personal data – often without us noticing – in order to sell us even more. By doing so, they are obviously invading our privacy.

“A few years ago, users of internet services began to realize that
when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re
the product. But at Apple, we believe a great customer
experience shouldn’t come at the expense of your privacy.”
(Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc.)

Just consider the company Palantir specializing in “data analysis”, which was recently valued at $ 20 billion.

Did you know that the CIA is one of its investors?

Are we naive enough to not only believe, but also follow the false prophets telling us that privacy is a thing of the past? Or something for old people? Believe it or not, I’ve actually heard someone say that.

Makes me wonder, whether we’ll ever reach peak BS.

“I hate victims, who respect their executioners.”
(Jean Paul Sartre, philosopher)

Face it, social networks are also surveillance networks, the social element being the bait to lure data suppliers and guinea pigs, also known as users and products.

Isn’t the term “social media” an oxymoron?

From whitewashing to greenwashing to “socialwashing”: Social Media = SM = Surveillance Media.

More data leads to more ads, which in turn leads to more consumption, i.e. coughing up more money, resulting in even more data, ads and consumption. A vicious circle for many, but not for all.

Why do we really complain about those collecting our data and selling it?

Because we value our privacy or because we want a piece of the cake?

And why are we not complaining about those eager to buy our data?

If we could, would we buy personal data of a potential employer or a potential partner directly?

No, privacy is not dead, far from it. There is just no room for it in the business models of many corporations today. But business models are not sacrosanct.

Privacy is not primarily the right to be forgotten, it is the right to be left alone in the first place. It is about human dignity and it is a fundamental human right, even though numerous governments and corporations seem to disagree. Giving up our privacy would mean opening Pandora’s box, as other human rights would disappear sooner or later as well.

Not long before free societies became a thing of the past too.

But are we living in a free society?

Are we free?

Are we fighting for it?

What is freedom?

Absolute freedom does, of course, not exist. There is a difference between “everything is possible” and anything goes”. We can’t do whatever we want. And we can’t let others do whatever they want and get away with it either. There must be rules defining how we live together. A very simple rule is that one person’s freedom ends where another person’s freedom begins. Freedom is always a combination of rights and responsibilities. We like the rights, but not the responsibilities.

“A hero is someone, who understands the
responsibility that comes with his freedom.”
(Bob Dylan, musician)

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves
responsibility and most people are frightened of responsibility.”
(Sigmund Freud, neurologist)

“None are more hopelessly enslaved than
those, who falsely believe they are free.”
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, writer and statesman)

Surveillance does not liberate us. As a matter of fact, surveillance in the name of freedom is an oxymoron. It means the return to feudalism, in this case techno-feudalism to be precise. Once corporations as well as governments know everything about us, modern form of slavery will follow.

“We must plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no
other reason that only freedom can make security secure.”
(Karl Popper, philosopher of science and professor)

Isn’t a government spying on its citizens the same as employees spying on their employers?

Data protection and digital freedom must be fundamental rights, fundamental global human rights. Otherwise freedom will die in the digital empire.

“Data must be owned by its subject, rather than
corporations, advertisers and analysts.”
(Tim Berners-Lee, computer scientist)

“The real road to serfdom is to be persuaded that the declarations
of democracy we have inherited are no longer relevant to a
digital future. These have been inscribed in our souls, and if
we leave them behind – we abandon the best part of ourselves.”
(Shoshana Zuboff, professor)

Say “No” to the data “Peeping Tom’s”!

My 1973 Super Beetle

Monday, May 9th, 2016

Super Beetle

My first car was a 1973 Volkswagen Beetle, a Super Beetle to be exact. A yellow bug without any gimmicks. No power windows, no power mirrors, no remote keyless entry, no speed control, no automatic temperature control, no beverage holders, no heated seats, no navigation system, no airbags, no rain sensing wipers, no low tire pressure control, no traction control, no ABS etc.

Not only that. My Beetle never sent any personal data of mine to anyone, because it didn’t record any to start with.

And my Beetle never broke down, was never recalled and just did what it was supposed to do: provide a reliable, trustworthy means of transport. All year long.

It simply did a damn good job. Super in more ways than one, if you ask me.

Oh, Volkswagen had a different management back then as well, but that is a different story.

Long-term, ethical thinking

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

Schrottplatz

How long-term is our thinking when contemplating a purchase?

How long-term is our thinking when contemplating any decision?

“Out of sight, out of mind.”
(Proverb)

Consider Pareto’s principle, whereby 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Let’s apply this principle to our purchases. It means that 80% of the time, we are only using 20% of the products or services purchased.

Just about right, isn’t it?

Or even worse?

Pareto’s principle explains, why we are easily bored and unsatisfied with many of our purchases. The fact that we hardly ever use them, prove that we didn’t need them in the first place. But we usually refuse to admit that. Looks like Theodore Levitt was wrong, we don’t necessarily buy the drill, because we need a hole in the wall.

The unfortunate consequence being that we buy even more – often useless stuff. And in a free market economy, we will be sold useless stuff, as long as we are happy to buy it.

“We buy things with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
(Dave Ramsey, financial author)

Sometimes, we really are a sad lot.

Or are we simply inept at factoring in all costs, direct and indirect, present and future?

Do we suffer from an inherent denial of reality?

Don’t we know what we really want?

Don’t we know what’s best for us in the long-run?

Don’t we want to know?

Do we ever consider the overall consequences of our decisions?

Do we think ethically?

Do we care about the price others have to pay so that we can enjoy (?) our habits?

Money has no empathy, but we should.

For example, do we think about the water footprint of a hamburger before buying it?

In case you didn’t know, it’s 2,400 liters of water for one 150 gram hamburger. By the way, the water footprint of one cotton T-shirt is 2,000 liters and that of one pair of leather shoes is 8,000 liters.

Do we think about the working conditions in Bangladesh and elsewhere before buying that piece of clothing?

Do we think about the fact that we are currently using 1,5 times the world’s resource capacity?

Intergenerational equity anyone?

Let’s revisit the Pareto principle for a moment:

What if we were to cut our purchases by those 80% that we hardly ever use and spent more on the remaining 20% that we use a lot?

That way, we might actually improve conditions all the way down the supply chain and get better quality products as well. We would actually get a better deal.

However, this would conflict with the policy of planned obsolescence, a popular policy to produce goods that become obsolete quickly, hence calling for rapid replacement.

When we’re young and grow physically, obsolescence is normal. Products, in particular clothes, become obsolete, simply because we outgrow them. Once grown up, obsolescence continues, because permanent economic growth is deemed to be an irrefutable necessity.

A sarcastic person would argue that the major difference between planned obsolescence and a planned economy is that the cycles in planned obsolescence are a lot shorter than five years.

There was a time, when basic quality and reliability were affordable and gimmicks were expensive. Nowadays, gimmicks are becoming cheaper and cheaper, whereas quality and reliability are becoming increasingly expensive.

Are quality workmanship and planned obsolescence irreconcilable goals?

What is so aspirational about a system that relies on uselessness and waste as important drivers for economic growth?

Are values, principles, character, conscience, ethics, ideals, integrity, standards and a sense of honor nothing but old-fashioned parameters standing in the way of progress?

Can there be no progress without economic growth?

How do we define progress?

Growth, ROI & ROE

Saturday, May 7th, 2016

Salatfeld

To understand modern economic theory, we only have to understand one word and that is “growth”. The capitalist model with its unilateral focus on growth has led to mass production, consumerism, waste, pollution and destruction. It won’t solve our problems in a human way. Pricing products and/or services is obviously not enough, we have to put a value to them and that means factoring in all costs, direct and indirect, present and future. In other words, external costs must be internalized, not only for the sake of transparency.

Why is it so difficult to understand that we, the consumers and taxpayers, wind up paying for these externalized costs one way or another?

And if we won’t, our children most certainly will.

We’d definitely be better off behaving like responsible customers/investors/citizens. Just like corporations, we have an ROI – and by that I don’t mean Return on Ignorance – too. And we should also have an ROE, a Return on Ethics.

“Things only have the value that we give them.”
(Molière, playwright)

Who or what decides which products and services add real value and which ones don’t?

Companies?

Governments?

Algorithms?

Do these products and services solve real problems?

How many are pure short-term diversion, keeping us from focusing on what really matters?

Was the economist Theodore Levitt wrong, when he said that people don’t want a quarter-inch drill, but a quarter-inch hole?

Cui bono?

“My iPhone has 2 million times the storage of the 1969 Apollo 11 spacecraft computer. They went to the moon. I throw birds at pig houses.”
(Bill Murray, actor on April 5, 2013 on Twitter)

Sounds like “panem et circenses” to me.

Speaking of smartphones, isn’t it rather strange that taking a picture with them is easier than making phone calls?

Faulty design?

Pure coincidence?

Dream on!

Don’t look back?

Friday, May 6th, 2016

Boston - Don't look back

Back in 1976 – I was living in the U.S. back then – the rock band Boston released their epic self-titled debut album.

It didn’t take long before many fans, including myself, were eagerly awaiting their second album. We wanted more. But, as anybody familiar with the band knows, Boston had and have a reputation for taking their time between albums.

So, did we despair in a world without Google, Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, Spotify and others?

Of course not. After all, we had something to look forward to.

The thrill of anticipation, remember?

With no news from the radio deejays, we simply drove to the record store to check whether the new album had finally arrived. Nowadays, many would argue that this was terribly inefficient, a waste of time.

We didn’t see it that way back then and I still don’t. Record stores were a great “real” place to meet interesting people and new music. And with every trip to the record store, the anticipation rose. Until that one day in August of 1978, when the long awaited new album “Don’t look back” had finally arrived.

It was a fantastic and very emotional experience. Party time!

A lot more emotional than checking on a fan-page if and when the new album can be downloaded.

So, never mind the title of the second Boston album, sometimes it does make sense to look back and reflect.

Instant gratification vs. thrill of anticipation

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

Instant gratification

Instant gratification, which has turned us into indiscriminate consumers, is the name of the game for generation bargain hunter. While our ancestors hunted for food to survive, we hunt for bargains, but not in order to survive. Strange kind of evolution. Incidentally generation bargain hunter is also the one that always complains about short-termism in business and finance. How inconsistent!

“Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs
that the deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions.”
(Niccolo Machiavelli, historian and writer)

“I want it all, I want it all and I want it now.”
(Queen: “I want it all” released in 1989)

“Since the 1970s, individuals, companies and governments have
become increasingly and dangerously focused on the short term.”
(Paul Roberts, author)

Don’t we remember the thrill of anticipation?

The times when “gratification” was not just a click away?

Remember Winnie the Pooh?

“”Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best …” and then he had to stop and think.
Because although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a
moment just before you began to eat it which was even better than
when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”
(Alan Alexander Milne, author)

Anticipation is an integral and important part of the human experience, while instant gratification reduces its value. After a while, we become bored clicking for stuff that we don’t really need. Clicking, just like consuming, becomes a purpose in itself.

“There is no horror in the bang, only in the anticipation.”
(Alfred Hitchcock, film director and “Master of Suspense”)

Let’s be honest, is a clicked-through life without suspense really more exiting?

Is it rewarding?

Is it human?

Ultimately, corporations are the only ones to profit from this behavior. Their pile of cash grows, while our and society’s pile of trash grows. And as long as we continue to behave like consumption addicts, this won’t change.

Status symbols

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

Porsche wheel

“We are once again confronted with one of the most vexing aspects
of advanced industrial civilization: the rational character of its
irrationality. Its productivity and efficiency, its capacity to increase
and spread comforts, … the extent to which this civilization
transforms the object world into an extension of man’s mind and
body makes the very notion of alienation questionable. The people
recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in
their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.
The very mechanism which ties the individual  to his society has
changed, and social control is anchored in the new seeds
which it has produced.”

The philosopher and political theorist Herbert Marcuse wrote “One-Dimensional Man” – from which this excerpt is taken – back in 1964. Over 50 years later, some of the commodities, in which many obviously recognize themselves, may have changed, but the principle still applies. Which is probably why we call these commodities “status symbols”.

“If I am what I have and I lose what I have, who am I?”
(Erich Fromm, social psychologist)

Deals

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

Deals

It is obviously quite easy to lure and trap us with so-called deals.

Have we forgotten that a cheap deal is not necessarily a good deal?

“Pay me well, but let me buy cheap” just doesn’t work, especially in a globalized world. Not only that, but we don’t rely on money alone to pay for goods and services any more. Today we also pay with our personal data, often without realizing it, meaning that cheap winds up being not cheap at all. It’s funny, but when I was writing this, I had to think of my grandfather. He used to say that “if it’s cheap, it can’t be any good”.

Have we also forgotten that a free deal is an illusion?

Facebook: “Sign up. It’s free and always will be.”

Do people actually still believe this?

Come to think of it, signing up might actually be for free. What follows most certainly isn’t.

If everything were to be free, we’d not only get everything for free, we’d also have to give everything away for free as well. Needless to say that this logic is extremely unpopular.

Would we still be free, if everything were free?

How valuable will our data ultimately be, if we’re less and less inclined to pay for stuff?

How useful will we be as consumers?

How profitable will we be?

If the Roman poet Virgil were alive today, he’d probably exclaim “I fear g(r)eeks, even those bearing gifts”. It looks like the proposition “for free” has always magically incapacitated our ability to think clearly.

Haven’t you ever wondered what would happen, if zero price met zero tolerance?

The business model would be kaput!

There is another problem. The cheaper a product and/or service becomes, the more indiscriminately we use it and the less we value it. “Cheap” and “free of charge” increase waste and pollution. We often choose low prices over better quality in the short-run, but – with all costs factored in – end up paying more in the long-run.

For example, do we value water and air fairly in most industrialized societies?

You’d think we would, because we can’t live without either. The sad reality is that, because we pay little for water and nothing for air, the value of both in a totally commercialized world is low, far too low, resulting in waste and pollution.

“Mostly it is the loss which teaches us about the worth of things.”
(Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher)

In an interview, the president of the space mining firm Planetary Resource, Chris Lewicki, stated that it costs nearly $2 billion per year to launch enough water – 6 tons per person – to sustain six astronauts aboard the International Space Station: $ 2,000,000,000 for 6 persons in 1 year = $ 333,333,333.33 for 1 person for 1 year = $ 913,242.01 for 1 person for 1 day. A necessary investment, considering that the scientific research on the ISS is important.

But what about the 780 million people on Planet Earth lacking access to clean water?

What, i.e. how much, would it take to provide access to clean water for everyone?

Why is this not happening?

I just mentioned Facebook. If Facebook were a country, it would be the biggest country worldwide with over 1.4 billion users. And it’s definitely not the Salvation Army, but that’s another story.

When is the last time, we thought about the energy needed – clean or not – to run the data centers enabling 1.4 billion users to “share” stuff for “free”?

The world would be a better place, if we would behave more responsibly.

Consumerism

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

Consumerism

Turbocharged by globalization, a massive influx of inventions has resulted in a myriad of new products and services, which have led us into the present Age of Consumerism. The temples of consumption have replaced Circus Maximus.

“People are motivated by mass suggestion, their aim is in producing
more and consuming more, as purposes in themselves.”
(Erich Fromm, social psychologist)

In these temples of consumption, many have lost their orientation as well as their freedom. Having to live on credit in order to finance their consumption habits, they have effectively become addicted. They have lost their freedom.

“Consumption works like a drug. Enough
is always just beyond the horizon.”
(Tomas Sedlacek, economist)

“Debt is the slavery of the free.”
(Publilius Syrus, writer)

On one hand, I don’t like the word “consumer”, when used to describe human beings. Products consume, like a car that consumes oil and gas for example. On the other hand, we are often all too happy to indiscriminately buy junk, the cheaper, the better. And for as long as we are happy to do that, we’ll be rightfully called consumers and treated accordingly.

Just one example to illustrate my point. Over the past few years, the food industry in Germany has been fined approximately one billion euros by the German cartel office for price fixing. The consumers have been had several times in the process. Not only did they pay too much for the products in question, they also paid more VAT on these products as a result as well. Needless to say that they didn’t get one cent of the fines and have to pay higher prices again sooner or later. Last, but not least, they punish themselves even more by not boycotting these products.

So much for “homo economicus”. We actually behave more like “homo consumens”, although many would argue that “homo consumens” is an oxymoron.

Is consumption our reason for being?

Yes, we’ve even managed to turn Christmas, a religious holiday, into the ultimate shopping frenzy. We buy and give , because the calendar and the ads tell us to do so. Nothing to be proud of, if you ask me.

A system that only thrives by manipulating people to consume more and more – often useless – stuff, does not add societal value.

What is more important for the future of humanity: Societal or shareholder value?

And it’s not just about cheap stuff either. Over time, luxuries turn into necessities as well, thereby creating new addictions.