Recently, I received a request to complete a survey of about 35 questions concerning the TV and entertainment viewing choices and habits in my house. The letter included a $5 incentive – which seemed to me like a lot of money to slip into an envelope, but apparently the sort of information sought by advertisers and marketers is just that valuable.
I am subjected to a lot of such unsolicited requests, with potential rewards: gift cards, entries to drawings for iPads or other name-brand products, appealing I suppose to my greed or curiosity. What the sources will gain is more than a few details to complete their project: They’ll get a bit of “me,” or the person I represent myself to be in those responses. Anyway, that’s what they intend to get for their “purchase.”
I’m not describing anything new here, but the value of information appears to be growing faster than most people realize, or have realized until now. I have the impression that collecting and applying information, in all its forms (e.g., knowledge held by individuals, data stored by networks, intellectual property, either developed or gained by license or subscription), is rivaling other types of commercial activities (like manufacturing) as a platform for commercial growth.
That is the great insight to draw from the recent Facebook controversy. Apart from the silliness about who derived a political advantage from the social network’s data collection, it’s now clear that Facebook’s members or subscribers are also Facebook’s product: by joining, they become resources to be cultivated; their industry in filling up their pages and spreading their thoughts and ideas builds capital for Facebook, which then applies that capital to grow new business — assembling valuable summaries of information for anyone targeting likely consumers of some brand or product.
In principle, information is virtuous: it fuels growth and development. In practice, information greases the wheels of commerce. Without information about their customers, suppliers don’t know what to do to make their products better. Without information about the products, customers don’t know where to place their order. Exchanging information shapes the market, identifying who is successful and pointing to where the next growth opportunities may appear.
What we’re seeing now is that more information is needed in greater detail, and with more immediacy, which on its own creates new opportunities — for example, the opportunity for me to pocket $5 just by opening the mail.
People are paying to acquire information simply to have it on file, available to be packaged and repackaged. Note, too, that our current civilization is so thoroughly commerce-oriented we are conditioned to sell at the right price. Whether you think that’s good or bad is a matter of perspective — that is, whether you are inclined to view these transactions from the principled or practical perspective.
What’s happening now however has me wondering about the purpose. If it’s all for commerce, one can argue that each transfer of information takes capital from one and assigns it to another. What if someone is scooping up information to “corner the market”?
That is the implication of the Social Credit System being developed in China. Individuals’ ordinary routines (TV watching, online activity), associations (church and club memberships) and accomplishments (work attendance, timely bill/taxes payments) will be assigned values toward a “national trust score” — which by 2020 will be used to “forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.” As an incentive to earn national trust, those without suitable social credit may be denied the right to purchase airfare, or to qualify for certain jobs, etc. Information, we should never forget, is also “power”.
Bit by bit the information we give up makes us comparatively poorer – in the sense that we become more quantifiable, and less able to convert our own capital into resources. As an investment strategy, I think it’s best to allocate my information more carefully. I may lose my trust in such a crassly commercial system, but I would prefer to avoid a future in which my value is defined for me.