The idea of privacy as a modern form of inequality has been rattling around in my head for a while, now, and I wanted to jot down some thoughts, particularly in light of the recent rise of Mastodon.
Typically, when people talk about inequality, they are focused on the obvious forms of socioeconomic inequality that result in advantages being conferred to some groups and withheld from others. The most obvious example is economic inequality–the recognition that economic benefits accrue primarily to the wealthy. But there’s a wide range of other forms of inequality out there, most of which are incredibly old and are structural in nature. For example, zoning laws frequently allow polluting industries to be built up next to minority communities, resulting in increasing environmental inequality. Jobs occupied by those lower on the economic ladder are more likely to be subject to unsafe workplaces, resulting in health inequality. And these same communities are the least likely to have the political and economic power to change these circumstances, an example of political inequality.
In the world of software and technology, we’ve seen the rise of surveillance capitalism, defined as the “widespread collection and commodification of personal data by corporations.” In this new world, individuals are, either unknowingly or voluntarily, subject to vast data collection operations which scoop up, collect, and connect these datasets. These datasets are then fed into systems designed to derive additional data about individuals–data about their economical and political interests, personal relationships, consumption patterns, and so forth.
Today, these massive apparatus are then used to deliver hyper-targeted messages intended to influence purchasing decisions, voting decisions, and so forth (though just how effective these techniques are is the subject of significant debate).
However, the uses of these data are vast, and they’ll soon be used (and in some cases are already being used) to influence things like hiring decisions, insurances rates, loan approvals, and so forth. The result is that one poor choice, one incorrectly interpreted data point, one broken or biased algorithm, could result in individuals being denied access to critical social and economic infrastructure.
Until and unless governments catch up, these trends will only continue. That means individuals have to protect themselves.
Unfortunately, protecting ones privacy requires knowledge, skills, and resources that are often the domain of a select few. As a result, privacy itself is increasingly becoming a mark of privilege.Continue reading...
The last few months have me thinking a lot about technology, disruption, and the metaphor Chesterton’s Fence, or why you need to think about systems before reforming them.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’
In the context of his writings, G. K. Chesterton was using this as an argument in favour of certain socially conservative views (hence the title of the essay “The Drift from Domesticity”). But the core principle–that it’s important to understand systems before you change them–is far more broadly applicable (and apolitical!), and is something that I think the technology industry would be wise to adopt.Continue reading...
The seventh post in my Blogging for the Holidays series, some ramblings about inflation.
It would be difficult to write a holiday wrap-up blog post series without a mention of inflation, which became the new boogieman in the latter half of 2021 as we’ve seen inflation rising steadily, with the rate in some categories exceeding 7% year over year.
That inflation is suddenly a problem is really quite remarkable given that 18 months ago everyone was terrified of a depression-level event as a result of mass illness, lockdowns, and so forth. But to the credit of our governments, while a lot of mistakes have been made, it’s pretty clear that many of the policies that were instituted–particularly the various financial aid packages that were put together–have done what, at the outset, would have seemed impossible: turned the threat of economic calamity into the kind of boom we all wished we could’ve seen after the 2008 crash.
But like so many of the other topics I’ve written about, this is just another example of an issue that, for my generation, is completely novel. The last time inflation exceeded 3% was way back in 1991! Meanwhile, the prime interest rate, which is a key tool for controlling inflation, is at historical lows (thanks 2008!).
For a generation that has never seen real inflation, this situation is novel, frightening, and deeply frustrating, upending yet another aspect of life that was previously familiar and consistent.Continue reading...
The sixth post in my Blogging for the Holidays series, some thoughts on labour and market forces, and what COVID has done to upend an old dynamic.
In my introductory post for this series I rattled off a number of topics that seemed especially interesting to me in light of the last two years of COVID, one of which being the relationship between capital and labour. A light and simple topic, obviously, but it seemed worth a post.
Standing in the shower I was thinking about my way into this subject, and then it dawned on me that my post on supply chains, and in particular the topic of supply-demand dynamics, made for a very nice segue into this topic, particularly given the conversations I’ve been having this year regarding the labour market.
I’m going to start off with a basic thesis that I suspect some might find a bit controversial, maybe even mildly offensive, but that (as I understand it) is pretty well understood in the world of economics: Labour is a market, and salaries are our price for our labour. This means that, absent government intervention, salaries are a function of supply and demand, along with all the other forces that make a market function.
This is not what anyone deep down wants to believe!
Naively, I think we’d all like to believe that the value we pay for something reflects what that thing is, in some way, intrinsically worth.
But what makes an iPhone valuable? We know from Apple’s filings that they’re achieving something like 30% gross profit margins on their consumer devices. That means we’re paying over a third more for the device than is reflected in the total costs of raw materials, labour, shipping, and so forth. And yet people still buy those devices, believing them to be worth the additional cost.
What about, say, a collectible baseball card? Intrinsically, the card is worth pennies in paper and ink. And yet there is a market in which such a thing could sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars.
The reality is that prices reflect not just pure utility, but rather something more intangible.
To offer just a little taste of just how intangible, consider the idea of the Keynesian beauty contest:
This would have investors pricing shares not based on what they think an asset’s fundamental value is, or even on what investors think other investors believe about the asset’s value, but on what they think other investors believe is the average opinion about the value of the asset, or even higher-order assessments.
In other words, our estimate of the value of a good isn’t necessarily even based on our own idea of its intrinsic value, but rather our idea of what other people believe to be its intrinsic value.
Well, the same is true of labour, and the forces unleashed by COVID that have turned markets for goods and services upside down have had similar impacts on the labour market as well.Continue reading...
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