One of the things that set our prehistoric ancestors apart from the animals was their unique ability to trade or barter with other tribes and groups. It is not clear when exactly we learnt to do this but here we are, thousands of years later, having evolved from villages to a global social structure.
Some contend that not all proto-humans were able to cooperate with those outside of their group. Others hold that the pack-mentality was necessary until survival became dependent on resources that required collaboration with outsiders. Most, however, can agree that humanity developed a very clear trade relationship: The person paying is the consumer and the thing received in return is the product.
But wait, does anyone reading this pay to use Facebook?
So, what happened? Why did our hairy, nomadic ancestors expand their interpersonal horizons? At the dawn of the agricultural age, when we were first beginning to settle down, tribes lacked the experience and manpower to be experts in every field.
Additionally, one cannot assume that every village simultaneously discovered every profession and skill, so naturally one of our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents may have stumbled upon a neighboring tribe and seen someone doing something absolutely foreign to them.
This realization always brings to mind the adage penned by British Sci-Fi writer Arthur C. Clarke:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“.
Think about that for a second. If you were a gatherer who spent days at a time looking for edible plants and you came across a village where said plants were growing plentifully in perfect, neat little rows, would you not think it fantastic? Would you not immediately desire to learn their magic? Or would you perhaps think it mutually beneficial to create a working relationship between your two tribes?
Moments like these may well have been the driving force behind the first systems of trade, as well as the first unification of villages. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar was of the opinion that there is a cognitive limit to the number of social relationships that a person can maintain in a stable manner. The aptly named ‘Dunbar Number’ is 150 and essentially implies that a group of humans functions ideally when it has around that number of members.
Now one could ask “How can Dunbar possibly be right? I have over 2000 friends on Facebook!”, but that doesn’t prove anything – except the fact that you probably spend far too much time online. The better question to be asking is, as with our primitive predecessors, what are the incentives for the maintenance of these super-Dunbarian groups?
For this we can return to our definition of the consumer/product relationship. The mainstream belief is that Facebook is the product and that we are all its consumers.But if we are the consumers, why aren’t we paying?
Computer Scientist Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist at Google, has seen first-hand how product designers “play your psychological vulnerabilities… against you in the race to grab your attention”. So therein lies the rub. Facebook’s algorithms are designed to recognize what things we enjoy seeing and what causes us to be outraged. The more we use it, the more efficiently it tracks and stores information about what we like and don’t like; essentially creating data that is then sold to the highest bidder.
This might sound like a bunch of conspiracy theorist hooey, but every so often Facebook oversteps the boundary of what is considered acceptable data-mining. Just last week, Facebook was fined $1.4 million for ostensibly collecting personal information from Spanish users without informing them. Now I am not accusing Facebook of directly selling my personal details, but it is abundantly clear to me that the meta-data is made available – for a fee – to advertising companies.
The product, in essence, is our meta-data.
These advertising companies can pay in order to understand what products they should advertise to us online and how to do so effectively. This doesn’t negate our definition of the consumer/product relationship, it merely switches the roles, positioning these companies as the consumers and Facebook users as the unknowing gatherers of the product.
So perhaps it is useful, once in a while, to stop and think about any app, website, or service you enjoy — If you’re not paying for it, you’re probably not the consumer.