Thesis #14

Surveillance capitalism is not sustainable in the long run

Surveillance capitalism is (Thesis 11) an extractive industry. The resource that it extracts is the personal information and online data-trails of those who use Google and Facebook services. Because they are capitalist companies, they need to continually grow, which means that both need a steady — and ideally exponential — increase in the resource that they extract.

Up to now two things have ensured that steadily-increasing supply: one is massive increases in the numbers of people who access and use their services; the other is developing ways of increasing what they call ‘user engagement’. To date, both companies have been very successful in growing both their user numbers and the amount of time they spend engaging with the service(s). (Facebook, for example, Facebook, for example, now has has over 2 billion of them, 50% of whom check in every day and spend an average of 50 minutes on the site).

The strategic problem both companies face (though it affects them in different ways) is that the vital resource they need to keep growing — user engagement — is not infinite. This is because engagement requires human attention, something that is becoming (Thesis 17) the scarcest resource of all. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day, and some of them have to be spent working, eating and sleeping.

So it’s inevitable that the two Internet giants will eventually become resource-limited. At which point they will have to invent a new business model, or settle for a stable, steady-state existence.

One possible model would involve charging for their services, just like traditional businesses. In 2016, for example, Facebook had 1.86 billion Monthly Active users (MAUs), from whose data it earned revenues of $27.64B and Net Income of $10.22B. This corresponds to revenue of $14.86 per user and net income per user of $5.49 — which gives one an estimate of the range at which annual subscriptions would have to be charged to maintain the finances of the company as they were in 2016. So the question is: how many current users would be willing to pay an annual subscription in this range to secure a service that did not exploit their data?

Further reading

Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants:The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, Knopf, 2016. Amazon UK:

Zeynep Tufecki, [“Mark Zuckerberg, Let Me Pay for Facebook”]( New York Times, 4 June, 2015

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