Our Digital Selves: Living Without the ‘Big 5’ — And 7,000 Others
During the past couple of weeks, I’ve been enjoying a thorough attempt by one Gizmodo editor, Kashmir Hill, to live life one week at a time without the titled “Big 5” — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft — and then to do so all at once.
“It was hell,” she reported.
Well, that statement alone could be interpreted as “unpleasant” or “impossible” or “really inconvenient” or “unenjoyable, or maybe all of the above. Hill’s attempts to quit cold turkey appeared to be very earnest and objectively pursued, though her editorial approach is not without a point of view: “The tech giants, while troubling in their accumulation of data, power and societal control, do offer services that make our lives a hell of a lot easier.”
Do I feel powerless with no control? I do not, but that’s a personal choice.
There, once again, is the age-old privacy paradox, which predates our digital selves. Do we — individually, as a society, as a matter of policy — understand the data-for-value exchange that is inherent not just on the commercial Internet, but in practically every business arrangement we have?
To shut off all data flows might be thought of as an exercise of a Luddite. Every individual can choose to live life this way, at least in some measure. Or perhaps it’s an exercise of being jaded: Among us, there are those who believe social media’s popular "10-year challenge" is a not-so-secret plot to update everyone’s likeness for facial recognition software.
Take a Regular Digital Break, Please
I, too, pursue and relish a weekend where I put my devices away, and go off the digital grid for hours or even one day at a time. A walk in the woods, or park, or beach, with no device in reach — and with just my thoughts – is an empowering and recharging experience (for me). It can drive my friends and family nuts, wondering where I am — but they’re used to it by this time.
“You didn’t play 'Words with Friends' with me yesterday. Is everything OK?”
On the other hand, every day, I observe fellow citizens who seem unable to navigate a sidewalk, or ride an elevator, or even sit at a bar or restaurant, without having their heads down in smartphones. Kudos to them for processing digital information constantly … I think. I certainly can’t do that.
Yet to have a bias — either in practice or in policy — that blocks responsible data flows, truly is an exercise in masochism. As participants in the marketing data supply chain, we have ethical and some legal obligations to be capable stewards of data. We have associations, self-regulatory codes, and regulators that teach and tell us what to do.
Beyond the Big 5, we also have thousands of companies in the adtech/martech ecosystem — at last count, nearly 7,000. Any could be the next "big thing," as investment flows seem to indicate.
Slide Source: “Outlook For Data Driven Marketing: First Look 2019,” The Winterberry Group, 2019.
On top of these, we have brands and agencies using information, responsibly, to attract (discover), create (convert) and retain (serve) customers. This is not evil. This is innovation — and we shouldn’t fault a data-flow framework that facilitates commerce, consumer choice and diversity of content. We should scrutinize it for harmful data usage — and regulate the harm.
In short, every information use should be vetted. Wisdom, rather than fear, must be our starting point in such examination, with a healthy dose of data reverence. In advertising, we can (and must) have both consumer privacy protection and digital innovation. Achieving such dual, laudable outcomes, however, cannot be achieved if we are required to just shut down.