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The internet, perhaps the most incredible communications medium ever created, is fast becoming the nervous system of the 21st century. But right now its primary business function is to gather data about us, to categorise and sort us, to machine learn our most intimate secrets, all so that marketers can craft advertisements designed to extract as much money out of us as possible.
As well as being the cause of our current privacy and surveillance woes, this business model is also a surprisingly inefficient way of matching consumers with stuff they actually want and need. A vast infrastructure of ad servers, data brokers, CRMs, and real-time bidding platforms exists in order to quietly nudge consumers to buy a different brand of soap. The problem is that we are easily nudged, and being a rational consumer in the modern economy requires an impossible amount of time, information and intelligence. Realistically, it is beyond the powers of human computation.
The seeds of a technology-driven alternative are emerging in some corners of the economy. A range of new tools crunch through masses of pricing and product data to help consumers avoid getting ripped off, and find the products they really need. Collective buying schemes have enabled households to club together in their thousands to negotiate better, cheaper, more sustainable suppliers of home energy and other products. The growth of free software, peer production and decentralised systems demonstrate that technology for independence, co-operation and empowerment are possible outside of the traditional market model. Combining these trends suggests a possible future where ordinary people collectively pool their data, computation and buying power to drive the production and allocation of goods and services, rendering the surveillance-advertising business model redundant in the process.