Cory Doctorow has made himself an expert on digital privacy. This essay is mainly about surveillance capitalism and Doctorow uses Vizio as a negative example. When he takes on the now old adage, “if you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product,” his insight really resonates.
In the simplistic account of what many call “surveillance capitalism,” the original sin was swapping our attention for free content, summed up in the pithy phrase, “If you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product.
I used to subscribe to the idea behind this phrase and repeated it often. It was a go to critique for the Facebook model. Unfortunately, I was never fully taking into account income inequality.
“Paying for the product” isn’t just hollow, it’s actively harmful. Under conditions of gross inequality and high levels of debt, “paying for the product” excludes those who lack the means to pay from access to the digital world. If Facebook charged for access, people who couldn’t afford it wouldn’t dig a hole and pull the dirt in over themselves. They’d land on a billionaire-subsidized platform – a social media version of Prageru – where moderators would delete comments that criticized corporate power. This is even worse than widely recognized issues like, “The truth is paywalled and the lies are free.”
Two things really brought this issue front and center for me:
- The rise in popularity of the subscription model. Apps, publications and services have gone all in on this model and for many of us, there’s only so much we can pay on a recurring basis.
- Loss in income. When your take home goes down, you start to question all of your expenses, and value the items for which you’ve already fully paid and therefore own.
I’m now in agreement with Doctorow. The mentality of having to pay for every product to gain the entitlement not to be exploited as “the product” has to go.