Since data – the fuel of advertising markets – is the source of their profits, tech firms are happy to offer, at highly subsidised rates, services and goods that yield even more data. Ultimately there is no limit as to what kind of goods and services those could be: they might have started with browsing and social networking, but they are as happy to track us exercise, eat, drive or even make love: for them, it’s all just data – and data means cash.
All these subsidies, though, make it hard to understand what the underlying goods and services cost. And as these firms transcend our browsers and smartphones and enter into our homes and cars and bodies, we should expect even more distortion of price signals.
Izabella Kaminska, one of Alphaville’s lead writers, even thinks that we are facing the Gosplan 2.0 – a Soviet-like system of technocratic elites who, flush with cash from desperate investors, allocate money as they see fit based on purely subjective criteria, favouring some groups over others, and using proceeds from their advertising business to fund exotic “moonshot” projects of dubious civic significance.
Thus, tech firms end up disrupting both governments and markets: with their sensory tentacles reaching into every domain, Google and Facebook claim to know how to make cash better than anyone else – and how to spend it in the interests of humanity.
Given all this, it’s quite likely that Google, Facebook and the rest will eventually run the basic infrastructure on which the world functions. They would be thrilled to do this, given the ensuing data rainfall. Other companies would be pushed to focus on luxury goods – a bit like Apple. This won’t be good news for the global economy: not every firm can – or should – be Ferrari or Apple.
But this could be the least of our problems, for in the long term it’s at the level of these very basic, infrastructural services that Silicon Valley’s promise of a glorious, advertising-subsidised future seems most dubious.
Kaminska warns that a “slowdown in globalisation, world trade and growth” might finally reveal the true costs of the services we are using. But there’s an even more basic threat on the horizon: the eventual meltdown of advertising – one industry that, like God, is supposed never to fail.
Think about it. Given all the disruption around us, how reasonable is it to expect that advertising will remain the magic cash cow that helps bring free internet to Sri Lanka or India and allows millions of people to use email and search for free?
If software, indeed, is eating the world, this “world” surely also includes car companies, banks, hotels, newspapers. How likely is it they will have the cash to keep on advertising – and do so using the very platforms that are actually eating them alive? Especially when even the most technology-savvy of investors’ darlings – BuzzFeed has just posted missed revenue targets – are losing money, while platforms such as Facebook are thriving?