Have Humans Been Reduced To Mere Data Factories?

French report classifies users of sites like Facebook and Google as unpaid laborers.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Your body isn’t a temple, it’s a data factory emitting digital exhaust” was written by Arwa Mahdawi, for guardian.co.uk on Friday 25th January 2013 16.15 UTC

France has been uncommonly busy lately. In the past week it seems to have lost its rights to Pong while producing both Le Pong and Le Best News Ever. The latter being a government report confirming widespread suspicions that time spent mucking about on Facebook is actually “work” you should be getting paid for.

Commissioned by the minister for innovation and the economy, the Colin and Collin Report essentially classifies users of sites like Facebook and Google as unpaid labourers. The logic being that, in using these services, you are giving away valuable personal information, which can be used to gain revenue from targetted advertising. It’s a sort of digital prostitution ring that is making Google around $30bn a year, including an estimated $2bn in France. In light of these galling facts, the report concludes, France should introduce a tax on the collection of personal data.

It’s not quite right to say that internet users are giving away their information. Access to “free” services like Google or Facebook relies on a value exchange and it is your data that is being exchanged. A general haziness around what value that data represents means most people accept this deal. After all, would you be prepared to pay “real money” to fund your Google Chat habit? Research shows you’re paying Google around $5,000 in personal data in exchange for its services. Given the option to pay that $5,000 via cash, credit or cookies, I imagine most people would plump for the cookies.

But things are changing. France’s proposed data tax is unlikely to become law any time soon but the fact that it has been mooted is indicative of a gradual drive towards a more official quantification of data. This can already be seen in the slew of start-ups trying to help people transform their personal details into dollars: an industry which could be worth £1bn by 2016 in the UK alone. Now, it seems, governments are beginning to wonder if they too can cash in.

The digital economy has often been called a new industrial revolution. And while factories dominated the first industrial revolution, today’s factory is the human body. Instead of looking at people as “consumers” companies are beginning to think of them as “producers” emitting a steady stream of digital exhaust; indeed, the report’s authors propose that the data tax would work like a pollution tax. Some brands have even used the idea of the body as a factory – or in Nike’s case a “sweatshop”– in their marketing activity. In a campaign called Bid Your Sweat, the sports brand created an online auction in which the only currency accepted was the distances you’d run. Every kilometre logged on the Nike+ system was converted into currency you could buy Nike swag with.

It’s not just companies and governments that are beginning to view the individual as a data factory: we are beginning to think about ourselves in these terms. This is evident in the mainstreaming of the quantified self, a movement where participants minutely measure every aspect of their daily routine. You probably know people who own a tracking device like a Nike Fuelband or Fitbit. And if you don’t, you will soon: a press release from the recent International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) predicts that in the next five years we’ll see 169.5m wearable fitness devices, “with the body becoming an input/output device where everything can be tracked”.

The body as an “input/output device” is just one example of how digital technology is creating a new sort of biological discourse. We have begun to talk about ourselves in numerical, technological terms: the quantified self, life-tracking, life-hacking, etc. It’s a vocabulary even embraced by new-age types who you think would be more interested in their chakras than their computers. Deepak Chopra, for example, promoted his involvement at CES with a tweet stating: “Our biology is a nano-technology workshop in our awareness.” Yeah, I don’t know what that means either, except that it’s probably a nano-syntactic example of absolute bollocks.

So what is the effect of all this? Has technology altered how we view our bodies? After all, the body as a factory seems something of a step change from the biblical notion of the body as a temple. Or, perhaps, it’s a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. After he delivered his body/temple soundbite to the Corinthians, St Paul went on to point out that you are not your own property, “you have been purchased and at a price.” With technology the reigning religion of our day, however, it looks like Jesus might have just sold his buying option on to Google.

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