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Opt-in Panopticon Economics 👁 💸

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One of my first thoughts about the recent scandal of Facebook paying teenagers and other young people $20 per month for unfettered access to their data from their smartphones was an adaptive response to platform capitalism:

“Is it worth it?”

If the personal data collected from our smart devices was private and secure, then this would be an easy no. That’s not the case — so, it begs for follow up questions: what is the value of giving Facebook access to the full stream of the data produced by our interaction with our smartphones when no part of that data stream is truly private and secure? Is it marginal? Facebook is already attempting to collect all information about your activities in machine-readable format by any means necessary, so getting paid $20 a month for participation in its opt-in Panopticon seems like it could be a good deal.

Despite the bullshit platitudes, vis-à-vis Mark Zuckerberg’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, where he frames Facebook’s unquenchable thirst for personal data as an innocent happenstance created by the user’s desire to see ads that are relevant to them, platform capitalism’s goal is behavior modification at scale for profit. To modify people’s behavior at scale, the platform capitalists need to understand what people are doing at scale, to which they have applied unfathomable amounts of technology and human resources to build systems to collect and process. So why does Facebook paying $20 a month for unfettered access to young people’s data, when its sophisticated machinery is already designed to collect as much as possible? I have a few ideas.

One is that Facebook’s surveillance machinery isn’t as effective at capturing all digital artifacts of your activities as they aspire to be. So rather than rely on its system of collecting drips from various leaky pipes and recombining them all, Facebook can just pay you for access to your water main.

There’s an interesting complexity here: Facebook is only paying $20 a month for access to information from Apple’s iOS users, information usually hidden (or at least designed to be hidden) from other surveillance machinery through the design of Apple’s platform. Users of Google’s Android, which is part of Google’s surveillance machinery, and curtains off less user data from the surveillance machinery of other platforms, could assume they’re missing out on at least $20 a month worth of privacy protections. And that’s just what Facebook will pay you for it!

Another is that the marginal value of additional personal data is non-linear its value for behavior modification. The more dimensions of data, the more effective machine learning models can be in facilitating designing systems to change behavior at scale for profit.

(Insert pithy conclusion about the fucked up logic of platform capitalism here)