Unintended Consequences

"Everything is connected to everything else." _Barry Commoner

There's no such thing as unintended consequences, there are only decisions made by people with a can-do mindset — often politicians and engineers — who believe that natural systems are no different than man-made systems and can be bent to their will. Almost every major problem we can point to is the result of an earlier solution, usually implemented by a politician or engineer. Still, we have to accept that this isn't going to go away. The mindset of politicians and engineers — to think in only short arcs of time — is embedded in their training and culture. Politicians will continue to make decisions designed chiefly to get them re-elected (by getting significant financial support from lobbyists), and engineers will continue to design smart phones so tiny and integrated that a user can't even replace the battery, let alone repair it. We'll vote for the politicians, and we'll buy those smart phones by the zillions.

When a new technology platform is introduced, a common response is either it’s the best thing ever or the worst thing ever. Both responses are correct. When a new technology is sufficiently useful, it will be adopted by many in the short run and by nearly everyone in the long run and will change us as individuals and as a culture. These will be changes that we’ll delight in and changes that we regret. We'll complain about small-screen addiction, all the while wishing our phones will get better, faster. And we'll do this every day, several times a day. The debate about whether we should encourage or discourage the use of a significant new technology will get buried beneath our pleasure in using it.

I've already written how the smart watch will encroach on privacy: you give me free stuff, and I'll give you my cholesterol levels and my firstborn. 1 We'll do it without a second thought, and a decade later, wonder why our health insurance premiums have elevated to the point that it would have been cheaper for us to buy a smart watch with our own money — every month.

Given the experience with Google, Facebook, and every company where the users’ personal information is the product, we don't get to cry that we didn't know what was going on, we get to accept only that we like free stuff more than we care for our privacy. But with more and more monitoring (and, likely, even with the current level of corporate monitoring by Google, Facebook, etc.) we will have to consider more than a privacy trade-off; we’ll have to do a financial assessment of our choices: Does that free watch save us money or cost us money indirectly? Recall my remarks about insurance companies using monitored data to raise your rates.

As of November, 2016, Facebook makes about $5 a month from U.S. and Canadian users. I have not been able to find annual Google income per user for recent years, but three times Facebook seems reasonable from what I have found. The most basic cable TV service costs about $20 a month, or the total of my monthly value to Google and Facebook. (In theory: because of privacy reasons, I quit Facebook, years ago, and use DuckDuckGo instead of Google.)

It's said that privacy is a tax on the poor. That is, poor people need free Internet services, because they can't afford to pay for them. By the same logic, poor people would be of little value to those who pay Google and Facebook to serve them ads, if they can't afford the merchandise. For the poor and businesses that pay Google to place ads, exchanging personal information for free Google and Facebook is lose-lose. For those of us who can afford $20 a month for Facebook and Google, exchanging our privacy for their free services is a poor value. There's got to be a better way for both users and advertisers than selling universal access to our personal information.

  1. Update: According to Bruce Schneier, this has already happened. A business got a large discount on employee's health insurance by issuing its employees FItBits. ↩︎

Gary Bloom

Counselor/therapist, writer, coffee home roaster, Husband and father.

Greater Seattle http://gebloom.com

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