Big Tech Faustian Bargain: How Much Privacy Are We Giving Up For Convenience?
I’ve spent the last six months of my life interviewing people for a new podcast called Everything They Know. It’s a show about how giant tech companies are harvesting our behavioral data to make money, and how it might be destroying our society.
One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years is called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. He goes into great detail describing the history of humanity, offering up a variety of interesting theories as to how human civilization formed.
Around eleven thousand years ago, there was, Harari says, “a Faustian bargain between humans and grains” in which our humanity “cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation”. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.
Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, and allowed for more complex civilizations and cultures to form, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure time. Rather, it translated into population explosions, pampered elites, and the creation of empires. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return.
Individuals in isolation may have realized that this was an inferior deal, but societal inertia was so strong, the change was so gradual yet so fundamental, that there simply was nothing that could stand in the way of this tectonic shift.
That idea that I aim to explore on this show is this: The same thing that happened with the advent of agriculture 11,000 years ago is happening today, except it’s with digital technology.
Faustian bargain? Check. We’re exchanging our privacy, our autonomy, our self-determination, for the convenience of modern life. Each year, the Terms of Service agreements we sign with our apps and our devices carve out just a little bit more of our psychic territory for themselves. Each year we give them more data, more information, more behavior to monitor, just so we can let them scream and yell at us in competition for our ever-more-valuable attention.
Creating more not equating to better? Check. Back then it was food, now it’s information. More information has been created in the last 20 years than in all of human history. Does it seem like we’re a more educated or better informed society? Just like agriculture helped elites consolidate power in a way they never before had done, digital technology is allowing tech elites to achieve similar power consolidation, on even larger scales.
The difference with our modern-day equivalent is that although the power dynamics are similarly asymmetric, we may have the chance to stop ourselves before it’s too late.
This has all happened in the space of less than 30 years. I was eight months old when the World Wide Web was born, and we’re now eight months before my 30th birthday facing the possibility of a future where most human beings suffer under the market-driven yoke of tech monopoly. Suicides are up, loneliness is up, school shootings are up, radicalization is up, our political system is being held at gunpoint by a Twitter-wielding sociopath, and yet we’ve been unable to craft any meaningful policies or ideas to counter this takeover.
The situation is dire. It doesn’t mean we can’t do anything, but first, we need to understand what’s happened. Where should we start?
Curiuos Audio is a partner of Rantt Media
Check out Episode 1, where I speak to Judy Estrin, one of the women who built much of the Internet’s early architecture. You can listen on iTunes or below.