The Snowden Affair and the Birth of Datalism

Evgeny Morozov, the author of To Save Everything, Click Here, has a though-provoking opinion piece on His basic thesis is that the Snowden affair has not only shed light on government espionage but also, and more importantly for the average person, on a shift in the basis of capitalism from exclusively a money-driven system to one where information itself is also a kind of currency. By this he means that we are all entering an age where we pay can pay for an increasing number of things not with old-fashioned fiat currencies but with information itself: about us, about our activities, and about our wants an interests.


Writes Mozorov:

What eludes Mr Snowden – along with most of his detractors and supporters – is that we might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not. As markets in personal information proliferate, so do the externalities – with democracy the main victim. This ongoing transition from money to data is unlikely to weaken the clout of the NSA; on the contrary, it might create more and stronger intermediaries that can indulge its data obsession. So to remain relevant and have some political teeth, the surveillance debate must be linked to debates about capitalism – or risk obscurity in the highly legalistic ghetto of the privacy debate.

In Mozorov’s view, services such as Gmail and Google Maps are not “free” at all. We pay for them by handing over the information stored in our contact list and in our location searches. This allows Google to continue to gather the kinds of insights (what internet specialists call the “Deep Web”) that lie buried beneath the “Surface Web” contained on Twitter posts and blogs such as this one.

I must admit that while I always understood Google derived some sort of economic value from giving me a free email account, I had not taken the next logical step of thinking about my information as equivalent to an alternative currency, like Bitcoin. My thinking on this topic has been influenced more by people like James Gleick (author of The Information) who tend to see data from as a biological/genetic perspective. But Mozorov is right to make us think of information as a tangible monetary asset we all now hold. He is also right to point out that while there are obvious economic benefits to suddenly discovering that something thought value-less is worth a lot to corporations, there are also implications to our democracy and its capitalist foundations that need to be considered carefully as this shift begins.

As Mozorov notes:

Other overlooked dimensions are as crucial. Should we not be more critical of the rationale, advanced by the NSA and other agencies, that they need this data to engage in pre-emptive problem-solving? We should not allow the falling costs of pre-emption to crowd out more systemic attempts to pinpoint the origins of the problems that we are trying to solve. Just because US intelligence agencies hope to one day rank all Yemeni kids based on their propensity to blow up aircraft does not obviate the need to address the sources of their discontent – one of which might be the excessive use of drones to target their fathers.

Unfortunately, these issues are not on today’s agenda, in part because many of us have bought into the simplistic narrative – convenient to both Washington and Silicon Valley – that we just need more laws, more tools, more transparency. What Mr Snowden has revealed is the new tension at the very foundations of modern-day capitalism and democratic life. A bit more imagination is needed to resolve it.

Indeed, as we move into what might be called data-driven capitalism, or “datalism,” to coin a new term, we need to ask ourselves the following question: what is the compensation we receive for giving away our information to phone companies, to technology companies, and even to the government and is it correct? Libertarians would argue that we undervalue our information if we are willing to give it away just so governments can, in Mozorov’s view, find better ways of finding terrorists rather than eliminating the “sources of discontent.”

I, for one, want to be paid a higher price for my selling away privacy, and so should we all.

Read more at:

Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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