Facebook, Cambridge Analytica Scandal: The Prosumer is also Culpable

Responsibility for Cambridge Analytica’s (mis-)use of Facebook data to aid Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign has, rightly, been accorded to all the major players.
Facebook has been criticized for being lax about its data; encouraging loosely controlled third-party apps; allowing them to gather data, sometimes quite personal in nature, about Facebook users; and lacking the ability to prevent that data from falling into the hands of others, especially those who might misuse it. This permissiveness was good for business as more apps generated more users and therefore more advertising revenue for Facebook.
Cambridge Analytica certainly deserves blame for using private data from responses to a personality quiz (thisisyourdigitalife); an app that was installed on 270,000 computers. That, in turn, led to access to information on about 50 million of the app users’ friends.
And. of course, the Trump campaign was willing, even eager, to use all that data, no matter how it was obtained, to aid Trump’s presidential bid.
While all of the above are culpable, at least some of the responsibility lies with Facebook’s users- the prosumers- who provided the data. They were very cavalier about the information they provided and how it might be used and misused. Most of them did not seem to know there was much they could have done to protect their data. They also did not know about the admittedly minimal defenses (e.g. installing tracker blockers) available to them after they had provided the data.
In the past, I, and others, have criticized social media’s prosumers for allowing their information to be used free of charge (see my November 19, 2017 blog “It’s Time to Pay Digital Prosumers for the Data They Now Provide Free of Charge”). These prosumers now stand accused of being oblivious to the potential uses of their information. Prosumers are, by definition, not only consumers of digital information, but they are also the source- the producers- of that information. As such, they should not only be paid for it, but they should be able to exert control over it. They are guilty of not using (or even being aware of) the power they have as a result being (active) producers of information on Facebook (and elsewhere).
In pointing the finger at prosumers, I am in danger of being guilty of “blaming the victims” in this case. There is something to that accusation, although much more of the blame goes to Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and the Trump campaign. However, it is not enough for Facebook’s prosumers to accept the fact that they bear some responsibility for the misuse of their data. They need to become what they have the potential to be. That is, “dangerous giants” able not only to exert control over larger systems (e.g. Facebook), but to bring them down when the need arises.
We can expect (minor) reforms as a result of the current scandal, but many risks will always remain. As a result, prosumers need to be aware of what they contribute, as well as the dangers they pose, to systems such as Facebook. When the need arises, they have a responsibility to act like the “giants” they have the potential to be.

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An Ignored Factor in Job Loss and Job Change: The “Working Consumer”

The McKinsey Global Institute’s November, 2017 report deals with the future of work (including job loss and change) through 2030, especially in light of automation (and AI). While the report covers a wide array of causes of job change and loss, it, as is usually the case in economic reports, has nothing to say about the role of unpaid non-marketized “working consumers” (a kind of prosumer) in these changes. This omission is especially striking because the report does discuss the implications of the shift from unpaid non-marketized occupations (those that do such domestic work as “childcare, early childhood education, cleaning, cooking and gardening”) to others that are presumably paid and marketized (e.g., workers in the previously non-marketized occupations who are employed by agencies that sell their services in a broader marketplace). The non-marketized unpaid work performed by prosumers is far more important economically than that of the occupations discussed by the report. Further, unlike domestic workers prosumers are not likely to be marketized any time soon.

Among the many examples of the working consumer are prosumers bypassing the services of tellers and doing their own banking via the internet or on ATMs, doing all of the work involved in making purchases (of all manner of goods and services; for example, buying airline tickets online and bypassing travel agents), serving as their own wait- and bus-persons in fast food restaurants, pumping their own gasoline at self-service stations, and so on. While it is the case that this shift to the working consumer leads to the creation of new paid jobs (computer-related occupations relating to the burgeoning online sites), it is likely, at least in the short run, that job loss far exceeds those gains.

The source of the problem lies in the fact that the McKinsey researchers, as well as other economists and technicians associated with these kinds of reports, lack the concept of the prosumer. As a result they are unable to see, let alone analyze and quantify, the prosumer’s role in job change, primarily job loss. While the concept of the prosumer is gaining increasing attention in sociology (and other fields), it has yet to be noticed by economists. Yet, prosumers are doing infinitely more unpaid, non-marketized work than, for example, domestic workers.

It is also worth noting that advances in automation and IT will bring with them an increase in “prosuming machines” that produce and consume largely on their own. Such machines are likely to lead to significant job loss in the future.  For example, autonomous vehicles will be a cause of job loss for Uber, taxi, truck drivers, as well as those in associated occupations. However, far greater job loss will result from the interaction of working consumers and prosuming machines (e.g. the use of ATMs rather than human bank tellers).