Rampant in technology is this social contract:

Give Us Your Personal Data so We Can Make You Happy With Features!

It’s a wildly successful social contract, and it’s true that Google and Facebook and others give us goodies all the time. Google knows about my upcoming flights, my past purchases, my habits of all kinds, and they use that to inform AI features that make my life better. OH AND BTW they also monetize this information by selling ads so that companies can (indirectly) target (people like) me.

Adtech companies constantly sing the refrain of how I love these ads and my world is better for the ads existing in targeted form (not just that I get neat features from apps). How could I even function if an ad company wasn’t telling me what I want and where to buy it?

The Unquestioned Assumption

The popular wisdom is that these companies can create all this value because we give up our data. Whether it’s for a technological or business reason, or it might be complete bullshit, they want us to believe that the only way to create good things is to give up our data (with the ensuing ad-tech monster on the tail end of that).

And we just believe them because it seems plausible. There is no option to pay Google for these features in return for my privacy. There is only one business proposition: Give us your data, get free goodies.

Here Comes A New Challenger

Apple’s made a lot of noise the past couple years about security and privacy, and while it’s Good For Business (tm) for them to differentiate themselves, they are also throwing down a gauntlet in their approach to privacy and AI in that they believe they can provide users what they want and need without creepy tracking or profile building or selling your digital trail to advertisers.

I don’t know if Apple’s approach will work as well, or will win in the market. But I love how it is questioning today’s social contract.

If Apple is able to provide a similarly compelling user experience going forward without generating profiles of users that are sold (indirectly) to advertisers, this will throw Google and Facebook and the entire rest of technology’s social contract into serious question.

Ad-tech Will Eat Us All

Lest this sound like I merely have an axe to grind against ad-supported business models, that’s not why this topic matters so much to me.

I would just like a world where invasive ad-tech isn’t the only business model.

Look no further than web publishing to see how “ad-tech only” ravages entire industries (I realize I’m oversimplifying journalism’s decline which was from many contributing factors). Paywalls have failed over and over, like the flailing arms of a drowning swimmer, but advertising is not proving to be a sustaining income and many outfits of quality journalism are folding.

If Apple’s foray into an alternative business model for AI and machine learning fails, do we just resign ourselves to a corporate surveillance state of adtech? It’s becoming increasingly impossible to simultaneously opt-out of that while remaining a relevant contributor to modern society.