Alienated From Our Data


In the 19th century, Karl Marx lamented that, due to the structures of capitalism, workers had become alienated from the products of their labor. In today’s economy, workers — and everyone else for that matter — are increasingly alienated from the products of their information. Products built solely around user information now proliferate, with many users oblivious and often completely detached from where and how their information is used.

When used thoughtfully and with consent, products and services that leverage user information can be beneficial to users as well as developers. Unfortunately, the disconnect between user’s knowledge and power, and that of the companies using their information has produced some unfortunate recent results.

With this in mind, many of the greatest economic questions in the coming decades will center around how people are able to control their data. Different than simply restricting access to customer information, control requires a sense of agency for the user to decide how to use their information. Indeed, users should have the ability to grant and potentially sell their information to anyone they want, but it should be their informed choice.

As information continues to increase in value, so will the added power individuals can gain through being thoughtfully monetizing their own information – with who, and how they want. With automation rapidly increasing, the value of manual labor is rapidly declining. Is it possible to replace the labor of people’s hands with the “labor” of their data? Probably not entirely, but a thoughtfully designed system could and should give some monetary power back to users. The income of manual labor must be replaced in some way for millions of workers, and while Ideas such as a universal basic income have been proposed, there must also be some ways for users to extract the value they create every day in the form of terabytes of personal data. Marx worried about people being paid very little for manual labor. In today’s economy, people receive nothing for the value of their data. Through better design, we can no doubt come up with solutions that can better serve all parties.

Greg VanderPol