• Introduction (coming soon)
    • About Me
    • My Motivations
    • A Stage for Rational Discourse
  • The Mind: Internal Reality
    • The Importance of Belief
    • The Illusion of the Self
    • Consciousness
  • The Universe: External Reality
    • The Origin and Future of The Universe
    • The Illusion of Free Will
    • Control In Understanding
    • Freedom As An Emergent Property of Consciousness
  • Personal Well-being
    • Happiness
    • Selfishness

random thoughts

I worry about the time when the amount of data on each of us is so accurate it can be used to squeeze every last penny out of us. Everyone has a price, and once corporations know that price, they will have tremendous influence (more than they do now, which is already pretty substantial when you look at the influence of corporations in politics around the globe).

Let's look at Amazon's Alexa for example. Alexa obviously records statements you directly ask it, because that's what gives Alexa its value. Should Alexa be placed in millions of homes around the world, it can give its makers, Amazon.com, Inc., an incredible amount of information with regard to what people are talking about every day. I wouldn't be surprised if Alexa also records phrases it hears but is not explicitly asked. Of course, Amazon would never admit this, but if it doesn't exist it will soon, I imagine (unless we as a people reel in corporations from setting legal policy). But think about it: in order to know whether you've asked it something, your Alexa must be recording at all times. Supposedly, however, it then uses "on-device keyword spotting" and only if the keyword match is found it sends the audio to Amazon's servers to be analyzed. Even if that's true (for now), that doesn't mean it can't analyze the contents of stuff it heard you say in the background, convert it to text, parse it for keywords, then send those back to Amazon. I may be reaching here a bit, but it's important to reach. It's our job as citizens to ask questions and make sure this stuff doesn't happen. It's pretty clear to me that we are already living in a time where our data is used to target us in real time for advertisements. It's subtle now (e.g. a search for something on Google starts showing you targeted ads for that product in multiple places on the web which you might not have thought were previously connected), but in the future it could be even more instantaneous and direct. For example, I might mention out loud to my friend I'm sitting next to that I'm hungry and thinking about ordering a pizza. Alexa, my phone, or any number of other internet-connected audio devices like VR headsets, refrigerators, smart watches, etc. could all listen to this. I might have not decided to order a pizza shortly after mentioning it out-loud, but moments later the Pandora radio station I'm playing will play an ad specifically for me about a discount for a pizza. Or the youtube channel I'm watching will play an advertisement about pizza. This is a very real possible future before us. At first, it will probably have to come with some sort of discount. Sure, some people won't mind targeted ads like this, but there are definitely a lot of people who will find it distasteful. However, even these people will be okay with it given a big enough incentive. 50% discount? Sure, I would definitely welcome that![1]

Believe it or not, I'm actually okay with targeted advertisements. If I have to receive ads, I'd rather get the ads that are relevant to me.

The problem I described above isn't the fact that it's using my data to target me with a specific ad per se, it's the fact that with enough information, corporations can know exactly how to "nickel and dime" us.

For example, companies may advertise higher prices to people they know can easily afford and won't have any real issue paying more for things. Food delivery companies like DoorDash know what I like and don't like in terms of food and in time they could probably figure out that I'll bend and buy the extra side of soup if they charge $3, but not $4. For every person, their price is different, so our data can be used to squeeze out the maximum amount each of us is willing to pay, rather than a fixed amount. Is this inherently wrong? No, there's nothing really wrong with it, and indeed if I'm willing to pay the price they give me for that side of soup, then what's the big deal? However, it's one thing to lower the price of a product so that someone can be convinced to buy it, but to increase the price for someone who can more than afford it is just seems a bit greedy. The thing is, I don't really have a strong argument against this because products don't have fixed prices — a thing is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. The fact that a company was able to find out exactly how much I am willing to pay for something is just a tiny side detail.

Or is it?

  1. The sad part is that we know that even if there are discounts in the beginning, they will eventually be phased out until people forget and think it's normal. It's a sort of "foot in the door" technique. Start a food delivery service and offer free delivery for food. Then, after you acquire a lot of users, add back in a delivery fee, but low at first so as to not scare away too many uses. Then increment the fee a dollar after a few months months. You can do this a quite a bit surprisingly fast and a lot of people will have already accepted the fee as the new norm... Such is the nature of the human mind, unfortunately. ↩︎

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