abstract ice cracking
Photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash

Will you be paying for that with cash, credit, or your data today?

Some words about surveillance capitalism, greed, ethics, and data collection

Over the holidays I helped my parents set up their new Roku devices with their TVs. This was no mean feat for a few reasons. They live in a rural part of Ohio so they’re still on DSL (if you haven’t encountered this before, you’re blessed to not recall the days when we got the internet via the telephone). This particular model of Roku also didn’t come with the USB-to-wall-outlet plug needed to use it. That cued a few minutes rooting around the basement.

Still, my parents are tech-savvy enough to know they don’t want smart TVs and they like having a Roku for every room in the house, so taking the time didn’t seem terribly disruptive. Until we got to account setup.

“I don’t want this. I don’t want you to know any of this about me.” My mom, frowning at the TV. After the initial account setup the Roku was asking for a phone number, address, and credit card. Bizarre considering the Roku device was already purchased, we weren’t setting up any new streaming services, and using a Roku is a purely digital experience.

No option to skip and leaving the form empty triggered errors. A cheerful “so you can make in-app purchases” lingered unhelpfully at the top of the form. I mentally debated trying a test credit card number and hoping the engineers didn’t think to filter those out. We eventually ended up filling out the rest of the form on a laptop where we could finish the account creation flow by clicking on the logo in the top left (still no “skip” option though). The experience left me wondering when we normalized this aggressive data-collecting.

False choices

These kinds of dark patterns are sadly becoming ubiquitous. Duolingo’s free app now makes you sit through multiple rounds of advertising–Try out Ubereats! Did you know you can get Duolingo free for six months right now? Watch another ad to get more tries!–and while you might argue that’s the price of free, it also gets in the way of, you know, using the app to practice a language. The thing I came here to do. The entire reason why Duolingo exists.

There was a time when you could close out of an ad. Then we started replacing that with a 10-second countdown until the close button appeared. Now we’ve removed the close buttons entirely and your options are typically:

  • Force-quit the app
  • Tap on the background behind the app and pray that works
  • Tap on a “no thanks, I like kicking puppies, please report me to the FBI” link in 10pt font placed right next to the “immediately charge my credit card for 200 Bezos Bux” if you’re lucky

Give it another year and they’ll be sending the Duolingo Owl to your house to prop open your eyelids Clockwork Orange-style to make sure you’re paying attention to their ads.

What’s the price of a free internet?

I’m intensely skeptical about web3 and DAOs. Mainly because they’re currently largely promoted by the same techbro scam artists that are shilling world-burning cryptocurrencies and NFTs. But I agree with the idea that something needs to change.

Experiences like these exist because it’s easy enough to run an AB test and let the algorithm decide what’s “best” AKA what makes the most money for the business. We’re rapidly optimizing ourselves into an ad-riddled surveillance-capitalism-driven hellscape where every iota of information about ourselves is currency but we don’t get to choose when we spend it or who gets it.

Capitalism rewards optimizing for the extremes. That was problematic enough in the pre-computing era. Now we have incredibly sophisticated machines that are optimizing at a pace and scale that humans simply aren’t capable of on their own.

I recently read a grim short story on Reddit. The narrator is having a bad day, and answers one of those “We’ve been trying to contact you about your car’s extended warranty…” scam calls to chew out the person on the other end. They inadvertently end up wrecking their entire life because (spoiler) the scam calls are a front for collecting voice clips and personal information so that the scammers can impersonate you. No one believes the narrator’s tale of identity theft, and the story ends with the narrator as a persona non grata, with no money or identity and warrants out for their arrest.

This story is rapidly becoming nonfiction. I’m deeply concerned about the future we’re running headlong into and what we’re doing (or not doing) in tech to stop it.

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Lead Designer @ postlight.com, a digital strategy, design, and engineering agency. Ultrarunner, creative, multilingual, & hopeless bleeding heart.

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Corey Roth

Corey Roth

Lead Designer @ postlight.com, a digital strategy, design, and engineering agency. Ultrarunner, creative, multilingual, & hopeless bleeding heart.

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