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Cosmik Debris

June 26, 2018

I recently deviated from habit and hailed a yellow taxi in a situation where I’d normally request an Uber. “Cool story bro,” I know, but as I climbed into the cab I felt the same frisson I sometimes feel when I leave the house without my phone or postpone a would-be text message for in-person conversation: the pleasant sensation of leaving information on the table. Wasting my data; opening my fist and letting the digital dollars blow away, except they’re dollars that only someone else can spend. A ride in a yellow taxi still generates plenty of data, to be sure, but considerably less than the equivalent app-based trip, especially if paid with cash and thus unlinked to one’s identity. Leaving aside for now the many methods for correlating separate data sets and linking this specific cab ride back to me, and also acknowledging that many tech companies have enough of my data to infer what I’m doing offline, it’s still edifying to avoid another active contribution—less as an act of resistance and more as a form of self care, a personal statement that affirms one’s humanity. Let little bits of your daily existence dissipate into the air rather than having them vacuumed up by a global machine that will alchemize them into advertising gold.  

By now, we take it for granted that nearly everything about ourselves will be digitally known and recorded, one way or another. My back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that Facebook’s 1.4 billion daily active users generate a combined $100 million in average daily revenue, meaning an average user’s average day on Facebook is worth about 7 cents, which is a lot when you think about what your typical day of messing around on Facebook actually entails. We usually think about data in the aggregate, but individual actions and individual data points have quantifiable value, and the monetary difference between interacting within Facebook and outside of it, like the difference between a digitally-imprinted rideshare trip and an anonymous cab ride, is real and non-negligible, even if it’s only fractions of a cent.


A visualization of taxi dropoff activity in New York (source

When you choose the data-poor analog option, what happens to the value you failed to create? Above, I used the metaphor of money scattering away in the wind, which suggests entropy, or information receding into random oblivion; however, we can also think of the data we “keep” as a form of consumer surplus—the difference between the price a consumer is willing to pay and the price they actually pay. Today, unlike in the past, we pay for products with a combination of money and data; giving up more of the latter often means we provide less of the former. In Facebook’s case, data usually constitutes the entire price, and is as good as money when it’s successfully captured. If we are willing to give more personal data than a company demands of us, from this perspective, we are enjoying another version of consumer surplus. 

The concept of consumer surplus implies a few things that are true of money but not of data: Money’s utility is symmetrical, so whatever an individual doesn’t spend stays in his bank account and remains useful to him there. Data that Facebook or Google don’t capture doesn’t accrue directly to its users in any quantifiable way; those companies can thus argue that information exchange isn’t zero sum and we might as well just give our information up to them. Keeping our data, again, really just means not letting anyone else get it—discarding it before someone else uses it for profit or worse. We intuitively recognize the value of illegibility when we see it, even when we don’t know why, and while that value is hard to measure, it’s increasingly built into every price we pay.