Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Information Economy

I must apologize for my neglect of the blog. Preparing for an international move is, as my people say, "no joke." Nevertheless, the content must flow, so let me share with you a brief summary of my current work-in-progress.

Consider all of the pieces of information you acquire in your normal online life. The results of Google searches, status updates from social networks, email and calendar notifications - all of these can be thought of as informational goods. For the most part, you acquire them at no monetary cost, they appear to be free as in "free beer."

Still, if you think about it for a moment, there is something you've had to exchange for these informational goods. In particular, you have to trade some token of your own private information in exchange for these very convenient and valuable informational goods. In order to find out what your friends are up to, you have to reveal that you associate with those people. If you want Google to remind you of an appointment, you have to tell Google that you have an appointment.

For Shadowrunners, this is what it looks for for information to be a commodity. There is an exchange of value; you give something, you get something, but the only "thing" exchanged is not a thing at all. It's just data. This point becomes more clear when you think about the anatomy of the informational goods in question.

Specifically, the goods you want, the search results, updates, etc, consist of two parts: some more-or-less public (or otherwise available) information, and some private information. When the two are "baked" together, you get the informational goods that we go online to find. Let's think through one just one example.

Users of Google Now know that if you let Google crawl through your email, Google Now can provide you updates on things like travel reservations. Let's say you've booked a flight. You give Google Now permission to access your email inbox looking for tickets and other travel-related communications. That's the private information, held only by your and your airline. By giving Google access to that private information, Google can combine the private data with publicly available information about flight status and schedules to provide various notifications. You will get a notice that your flight is on-time, you will get a notice indicating your scheduled departure gate, and you will likely get a notice when you should leave for the airport so that you don't miss your flight due to traffic.

Now, since flight status, departure gates, and traffic information are all publicly available, you could put these informational goods together yourself. You can even use a non-tracking search engine like Ixquick or Startpage to ensure that no one knows you're looking up the information. Nevertheless, doing that takes time and effort, two things that are often in short supply when preparing for a trip. As such, the informational good you can get from Google in exchange for your private data is valuable to you.

That's how we've come to participate in a massive information economy where private data is the currency we trade in exchange for customized informational goods. Your private data is worth something to information vendors (or else they'd be asking for "hard" currency), but you often find it easy to trade that data for the immediate availability of something you could create for yourself. Before you write me off as technophobe, I don't think the information economy is bad all the way down. I do think that we need to reconsider privacy rights and protections to ensure that information vendors are not endangering us somewhere down the line.

Stay tuned for more on that last point as the article develops.