Creative Commons

We All Work For Facebook and Google — Why Aren’t We Getting Paid For It?

In every job that must be done
There is an element of fun
you find the fun and snap!
The job’s a game
— Mary Poppins

One of the arguments often raised against basic income is the idea that it would make people lazy — that if we paid people merely to exist, everyone would just sit on the couch and play video games all day. Victor Everhardt, an alderman from the Dutch city of Utrecht, asked this very question as the city prepared to roll out a basic income experiment this year:

“What happens if someone gets a monthly amount without rules and controls? Will someone [sit] passively at home or do people develop themselves and provide a meaningful contribution to our society?”

While it sounds like a reasonable question, this concern actually overlooks the role that non-work activities play in our modern economy. The way we define “meaningful contribution” may have to change as our use of social media and other data-producing platforms continues to grow.

Many of us are continually generating massive amounts of data — and therefore value — simply by going about our daily lives: through the use of social media and search engines; location-based apps like Waze and Uber; and even personal health devices like Fitbit.

My car insurance company tracks my mileage and driving habits. Netflix keeps tabs on its viewership. Our phones store location data. Our Facebook posts drive ad revenue. Why aren’t we getting paid for any of it?

This is the cognitive capitalist case for a basic income. In The Guardian, Evgeny Morozov writes:

“[I]t is a way to compensate workers for the work they do while not technically working — which … often produces far more value than paid work. Think of Uber drivers who are generating useful data, which helps Uber in making resource allocation decisions, in between their trips.”

Cognitive capitalism refers to a society in which technology and knowledge-based sectors of the economy replace industrial ones. By many accounts, we’re already there — but our labor systems haven’t caught up:

“[B]ecause much of our labour today is collective — do you know by how much your individual search improves Google’s search index? Or how much a line of code you contribute to a free software project enhances the overall product? — it is often impossible to determine the share of individual contribution in the final product. Basic income simply acknowledges that much of modern cognitive labour is social in character.”

There have been some attempts to compensate users for their contribution to the digital economy. A handful of companies promised to pay users for their social media posts, but none of them have really caught on. For the most part, we pay for the privilege of donating our personal data to Silicon Valley for its own corporate use.

The ability to tap into reserves of user-generated data can give companies a major edge in the marketplace. Facebook is currently the target of an anti-trust investigation in Europe over its data-collection policies.

In some cases, our personal data contributes to the development of artificial intelligence. In The Boston Globe, Scott Santens writes:

“One powerful example of this … comes from the electric car maker Tesla. Google spent six years accumulating 1.7 million miles of driving data with its prototype self-driving cars. Tesla, on the other hand, simply sent out a software update, instantly teaching its fleet how to drive themselves with a new ‘autopilot’ ability. The network started racking up Google’s total mileage every week. Every single Tesla is now effectively teaching all other Teslas….”

Do Tesla owners get anything in return for their car’s contribution to Tesla’s Autopilot system? How about other drivers who encounter the car on the road and unwittingly become part of its decision-making process?

While we could certainly envision ways for companies to reimburse their users for the data they produce, there are ethical considerations here too. Will only the rich be able to afford to opt out of tracking devices?

A fair system would recognize the role that we all play in propping up our digital economy, and provide an unconditional basic income regardless of our immediate involvement in the technology sector. Why should Google’s 53,600 employees be the only ones to get paid, when our own user data contributes to its $377 billion market value?

A basic income could close corporate tax loopholes and redirect some of that value back to the people who help subsidize it with their clicks.

But what about the laziness factor? Would people stop working altogether and just play games all day? In her book “SuperBetter,” game designer Jane McGonigal argues that gaming can make the world a better place when it’s used for personal development and pro-social activities.

As Simon Parkin summarizes:

“The principles of game design … can be used to turn not only leisure into productivity, but also sickness into health. By reframing recuperative tasks such as going for a walk, reconnecting with a friend or writing a short story as gamelike quests, healing can be systematized.”

Gaming has become so integrated into the way we live, work, get to work, get paid, eat, exercise, and relax that it’s already a defining part of cognitive capitalism. We’ve gamified personal finance with Mint, meditation with Headspace, and language-learning with Duolingo. Parkin writes:

“This is the era of quantification. Every step we take can be recorded, the length of each night’s sleep measured and the number of calories we ingest counted. In this way our survival acts have become a high-score challenge and, it follows, somehow winnable.”

In cognitive capitalism, even the laziest among us may have a role to play in making the world go ‘round.


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