Sure, Google will provide you with search results, but they are not in the search business; they are in the advertising business. Their profits come from marketing firms that buy your behavior.
Similarly, Amazon is not in the book business, although they will send you the books you've ordered. They are in the personal information business.
The assets of modern web-based companies are the intimate profiles of those who "use" them, like you and me. Time to forget the nice pronouncements like "Do no evil" that accompany the wholesale destruction of privacy now taking place on the web, or rather within the walled gardens that companies like Facebook, Google and Apple are erecting around us on the web. Compared to them, the Chinese censors re-inventing their Great Wall are a bunch of sissies.
Any smart CEO would kill to have a product like you that doesn't cost anything and keeps renewing itself indefinitely so it can be sold and resold and resold to many different customers.
Well, who cares? Look at what we've gained: We now have access to unprecedented new riches. Movies and songs by the thousands; new "friends" by the hundreds; timely pieces of data by the millions. Our lives have become richer, more intelligent, more interesting.
The world moves on. You may have had privacy rights as a customer or a user but what makes you think you should retain those rights now that you're just a product?
The privacy we once thought was so vital: where we live, who we vote for, what we eat, what God we believe in, who we go to bed with, turns out to have been a myth, an unimportant detail in our lives. Whoever wrote the Constitution in an effort to protect it (a fact now disputed by some legal experts) was sorely out to touch with technology and ignorant of life's true values.
Or was he?
What does it mean to live in a world where the behavior of an entire population can be accurately mapped from minute to minute? A world where Procter & Gamble knows exactly what kind of toothpaste I use (and when I can be expected to run out) but also a world where government planners and politicians can subscribe to data flows from datamining experts to engineer finely-tuned programs of mass manipulation? A world where whole new social, political or religious "memes" can be injected into the culture to mold it into new forms?
People used to be up in arms when local authorities put fluoride into the water supply to strengthen kids' teeth but very few object to intelligence agencies experimenting with massive social engineering intrusions into the flow of ideas on social networks.
On a personal basis, do we really want our lives to be conditioned by an information environment that seems to expand to infinity but actually closes in around us? It closes in because we can only buy songs and "apps" from the censored files of iTunes; because all our relationships with the people we love or engage in business have been posted online for our convenience; because the very smart phone we now carry everywhere is busy filing ads filtered by sophisticated agencies to reflect our tastes; because our bank has shared our financial data with all its "affiliates:" thousands of insurance, real estate, brokerage and media firms. Like good magicians, they have mastered the art of misdirection.
Have you ever tried to "opt out" of that system to find out what lies beyond its boundaries?
In this new world our illusion of freedom is intact but our privacy has been sold out from under us. My phone is already reporting my position to its masters and to anyone who buys the information from them. It will soon "augment my reality" by leading me to restaurants matching my tastes at attractively discounted prices--restaurants where I will meet my "friends" to discuss the ideas we all believe in. How reassuring! How warm and cuddly! How convenient! Everybody knows where you are and what you're thinking about.
I tweet, therefore I am.
Uncertainty has been mastered, volatility reduced, complexity minimized. Isn't that a benefit of advanced technology? Isn't that what business should be all about? Forget 1984 and Brave New World. The men who wrote those books were dangerously naïve and not as prescient as we once believed. Instead of Big Brother looking after us, we're immersed in a dizzily delightful system that cares so much about us that it anticipates our every pleasure, like a giant planetary-class Vegas, an immense, inexhaustible Disney World. All we have to do is to preserve the illusion that we, "the users," have the power: in that ignorance, we can live happily ever after.
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Jacques Vallee is a computer scientist, astronomer, venture capitalist, and author of more than a dozen books including Wonders in the Sky, Passport to Magonia, and The Network Revolution.