About twelve years ago, I used to work with HSBC in their Mumbai headquarters. Every time my team and I would go for afternoon coffee, we saw something interesting on the other side of the road, on a footpath. A woman selling husk balls and grass-bunches. Something that animals like cows, buffaloes, and bullocks eat. And, just a few feet away from her, there was a cow. Her cow tied to a tree.
Now one thing you must know, in India, people revere cows. Just like some people have a close relationship with their dogs or cats…or robots, it exists with cows. Every time people see a cow, they are tempted to pat her and feed her.
As we would sip our coffee, we would see that people passing by would pause for a while after seeing the cow, then they would buy a husk-ball or grass bunch, feed the cow, and move on. Every time that happened, we would smile and debate over her business model.
I admired the idea, but it felt like something wasn’t quite right. After all, it was her cow and grass from her farm. She was selling her cow’s food to others to feed her cow.
A few years later, I came across so-called platform businesses — the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook, and many others.
That’s when I realized; how these marketplaces, much like the husk ball seller, manipulate your behavior for their business benefits.
And how in this technology-centric world, tech-ethics has a vital role to play in our sustainability.
In this technology-centric world, tech-ethics has a vital role to play in our sustainability.
Consumerism, an idea that promotes consumption. It creates a false sense that our well-being, our happiness depends on material possessions.
But it also has a significant impact on our environment. When the demand for goods increases, the need to produce them also increases. It leads to more pollution, more emissions, climate change acceleration, and many other issues.
To put it simply – when more people consume more stuff, we get a sustainability problem.
Now the question is, how do you end up consuming so much? Who is selling you more and more? Why are they doing that? And most importantly, how are they doing it?
When more people consume more stuff, we get a sustainability problem.
The platform businesses or marketplaces thrive by optimizing supply and demand simultaneously. And one of the core metrics they pursue is CLV, i.e., customer lifetime value. CLV directly depends on how much you spend on a particular platform, how often you do it, and how long you continue doing it.
It means there is a direct benefit for platform companies to make you buy more stuff, buy frequently, and always.
But here is the thing – getting someone to open their wallet is not easy. So, if you want them to buy more than what they need, it can be harder. And that’s when people get into manipulative tactics.
There is a direct benefit for platform companies to make you buy more stuff, buy frequently, and always.
Now, manipulation is possible only if someone knows more about you. Not just your personal data but also the data about you.
While most of you know about personal data, only a few understand what “data about you” really means. It means the metadata. Your digital persona built using your online behavior – call it your digital twin or footprints.
Have you ever heard the term “Cookies?” No, not the sweet ones but the other kind. Find more about them, search for “browser cookies.”
Browser cookies are used to track your behavior – what you intend to buy and what you end up buying…or not buying. How much time do you spend thinking before deciding? When you see an ad, what action do you take? Do you search for that item on Google, or you go on price comparison websites? Everything is monitored.
It is also known as surveillance capitalism – the commodification of personal data for profit-making.
Beware of no only your personal data but also your metadata!
You search for any item once, and it starts to follow you everywhere!
You get bombarded with personalized emails to buy now because the sale is ending soon. Buy now because only three items are remaining. Buy now because customers who bought this also bought that.
It is not if anymore. Platforms have all the profiling done on you. You give that data for your convenience. And of course, they never told you it would be used to manipulate your buying behavior, did they?
When platform companies know more about you than you know about them, it creates an information asymmetry. And this is what makes you vulnerable.
When platform companies know more about you than you know about them, it creates an information asymmetry, making you more vulnerable.
Ryan (Cassata), a 26-year-old singer and actor, and he is from Los Angeles. A couple of years ago, Ryan told a newspaper, The Atlantic, that he almost bought a pool floater online one day. And then he remembered, he doesn’t have a pool!
There is another case of Mrs. Bita; she shared her experience with Business Insider. And she recalls buying about 1,427 items on Amazon in over eight years. It roughly translates to about one item every two days, and she spent over 40 thousand US dollars. Mostly on buying stuff she did not need.
And there are many Bitas and many Ryans out there.
But it also feels repulsive when you hear that billionaires got half a billion richer during the pandemic. Bezos added about $35 billion, Zuckerberg added $25 billion, and there are many others. And of course, this is by running a business based on selling you more stuff and using your personal data.
What did you get?
Technology can be a force for good; there is no doubt about it. But we need more people with the right mindset for using it. We need more people whose heart and head are in the right place.
I have been a technologist for more than twenty years. And I have noticed, techies have hard-time to understand, appreciate, and prevent the consequences of whatever they create. They cannot see the forest for trees. Expecting them to change can be very challenging.
Plus, when the business has profit as a primary motive, self-regulation becomes a window dressing.
Technology can be a force for good. But we need more people with the right mindset for using it.
But we can change this. You and I can do it. Let me put this in perspective.
There are about one million employees in the top four platform companies. And there are more than two and a half billion users who are directly affected by all this.
I think we have an exceptional advantage and power to drive the change.
Then, what stops us from taking any action?
Sometimes, we see a lot of things. But we don’t quite understand what is wrong. When I saw a cow and husk ball seller, I felt the same.
So, here are a few things that you can implement starting today.
First of all, I recommend reading, researching, and understanding these issues. Consumerism, sustainability, tech-ethics. Learn how they are related. Spread this awareness.
Because people often use your ignorance to sell you something, and they would cross the line if they can get away with it.
Secondly, every time you are done browsing, whether on your computer or a smartphone – delete cookies from the browser.
Eventually, we all need to become more intentional about our buying habits.
Eventually, we all need to become more intentional about our buying habits.
But at a larger scale, you will realize that tech-ethics is not a technical problem. It’s a social problem. And social problems need a social movement to fix them.
So, if you see these issues firsthand, please speak-up. Seek support and also support others who are doing it.
Technology platforms, its wealthy owners, governments – all of them have a fiduciary duty towards us, the fellow residents of this planet. A duty of care to put everyone’s sustainability ahead of their own business interests. Any deliberate promotion for increasing consumption, influence, and manipulation of behavior needs to stop.
The cost of living is much lower than the cost of lifestyle! It always has been.
But now, our sustainability is at stake, and I would like to ask you: are you willing to be the change you want to see?
The cost of living is much lower than the cost of lifestyle!