Quite the fascinating article today by Chris Hughes, one of the group of plucky young Harvard students who founded Facebook. In response to the recent Facebook fracas, Hughes suggests not merely that we regulate Big Data companies like Facebook but that we find a way to share the revenue with the pubic, with the users. Here’s how Hughes puts it:
“the principle underlying it should be clear: companies that benefit from the data we voluntarily provide should be required to protect it and to share that wealth with the people who made it possible.”
The article is quite astounding, in that a co-founder of one of the Big Data giants is not only suggesting that we regulate Facebook but that we also develop some sort of profit-sharing scheme to redistribute the wealth created by Facebook and other Big Data companies — but Hughes is still operating within the capitalist framework, of course, and so the answers to the problems remain remarkably complex: regulating and redistributing the profits would require many new layers of bureaucracy.
What Hughes is proposing is on the liberal side of the spectrum. The difference between liberals and conservatives (at least here in the States) is not that conservatives are capitalists and liberals are socialists. Both liberals and conservatives are deeply commited to capitalism. The primary difference is that liberals believe that capitalism works best if markets are more rigorously regulated and if there is a bit of redistribution of wealth. In other words, liberals want a saner and softer version of capitalism.
Imagine that a few hundred of us have houses that surround a serene little lake. We all love our lake, and what not, but the lake is owned by someone else, and so we all have to pay fees to use the lake. That’s capitalism: control by the few, profit for the owners.
The socialist scenario is quite different. Those of us who use and benefit from the lake participate, collectively, in ownership of the lake. We consider it a “public” lake that benefits us all.
In illustrations like this, it’s easy to see the difference, but when it comes to modern industries like the Internet, the waters get muddied, so to speak. Socialism is a very different paradigm, which is why it’s so difficult to have meaningful discussions with fellow Americans about the objectives of socialism. Let’s sort this out, in terms of Facebook.
Where Hughes and other liberals believe that our data should rightly remain controlled by private owners and shareholders/investors, a socialist advocates that Big Data ought to be controlled by the public.
In my Democratize Facebook post, I talk about public platforms, like Facebook and other social medias:
- It’s something we all use, and
- It’s something that only works because we all use it.
This is why we talk about “social” media: social institutions work best under the democratic control of society, or at least when there is social accountability using some form of democracy. Healthcare, for example, has been a dismal failure as a capitalist venture.
Like healthcare, the Internet would work better for all people if it were owned and democratically controlled by the people. The economic basics of free markets (supply and demand, etc.) work well on a small scale (like a farmer’s market, for example), but in a modern economy there are certain services that work best when they are public services, for the public good, things like utility companies, transportation infrastructure (roads and bridges), healthcare, education, and yes, the Internet. (See Take It Back: Free The Internet from Capitalism)
The problem I have with liberals like Hughes is that they presume that the central premise of capitalism is true: that we the people are incapable of collective and democratically controlling the things that affect us all. Socialists, by contrast, believe that we ought to have a say in whatever impacts us.
It simply doesn’t make sense to socialists that a small percentage of people should become millionaires or billionaires based on things that belong to all of us.
I’m a pragmatic sort of socialist, though, so if the Hughes proposal were to materialize, I’d celebrate it as a success. We are living through one of the most corrupt eras of American history, and as a result corporations and the wealthy (aka “the 1%”) are consolidating and expanding their wealth, power, and control over our society. This isn’t very encouraging, as humankind explores this entirely new and unknown digital frontier. We are in danger of finding ourselves in some sort of digital dystopia, of the kind that the hyper-active imagination of sci-fi authors have been writing about for a long time.
The point is not to scare us into socialism. Quite the contrary. Life is better when we do it together. Our lives will be better if we cooperate together, like a group of home owners who live around a serene little lake. We really don’t need to pay someone to use the lake. We really don’t need Zuckerberg or other Big Bosses to siphon money from society, not when it comes to things that impact all of us, and certainly not in regard to data, our own personal data. Hughes makes a great point, in this regard:
“One person’s data is worth little, but the collection of lots of people’s data is what fuels the insights that companies use to make more money or networks, like Facebook, that marketers are so attracted to…We have all pitched in to create a new commonwealth of information about ourselves that is bigger than any single participant, and we should all benefit from it….”