Monetising public and private spaces

Monetising public and private spaces

IT companies have given a whole new meaning to the concept of public-private partnership

Roger Marshall

IT is everywhere, and the euphoria IT has generated in the Indian populace is palpable. After all, who could argue against more well-paying white-collar jobs at MNCs, a plethora of cheap consumer goods on Walmart/Flipkart and Amazon, instant Facebook/WhatsApp communication with family and friends, free medical advice, Uber/Ola rides and Airbnb accommodations?

Well, I for one would be very concerned about the rapid erosion of commonly held distinctions between what is public versus what is private. Public as in public spaces such as schools, stadiums and streets, parks and playgrounds. Private as in private spaces such as your home, your car and motorcycle, and your body and brain expressed through movement, emotions and thought processes. Both types of spaces are being assaulted on a scale, the likes of which we have not witnessed before. All in the name of more jobs, efficiency, convenience and security.

Municipalities bend over backwards to attract IT companies by offering cheap land and taxpayer-subsidised incentives but very often these same companies leave town when the subsidies run out. This type of company behaviour is nothing new. For example, any number of special export zones (SEZ) have been set up in the past by many small countries in South East Asia to attract investment and boost exports, only to be shut down when the foreign companies left after taking advantage of all the benefits that SEZs had to offer.

In most countries, information in the public domain include mundane things such births, deaths, court proceedings involving convictions and bankruptcies, property transactions, and motor vehicle registrations. Much of this data is available freely on the internet. However, private companies, the so-called data brokers, package this information and sell it to the general public. The packaged information is rarely vetted for correctness or completeness. What was public has now been monetised by private parties.

With the advent of ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Ola, private vehicles are made available to the general public, but a significant portion of the revenue goes to these private companies. The consequences of increased congestion on the roadways and the resulting pollution, and the impact on mass transit, have been blithely ignored.

In a similar vein, search engines and social media such as Google and Facebook take the general public’s web activities such as surfing, emailing and private postings and sell them to private companies for advertisement purposes. What was private has now been monetised by private parties.

In the case of accommodation-sharing companies such as Airbnb, what was private, i.e., one’s home, has now been made public but the accommodation-sharing company reaps substantial profits. What was private has been made public and monetised by a different private party.

If you are sitting on a valuable piece of real estate and have it expropriated by the government under eminent domain laws for the ‘greater common good’, only to learn later that the property has been sold off to developers for commercial purposes, you would be furious, I am sure. A transaction which can be best described as private (you) to public (government), and then back to another private (commercial developer).

Over and above all this, when data breaches of companies and government entities occur, and such breaches do occur on a fairly regular basis, what was private ends up becoming public and sold to the highest bidder. Private musings on diverse issues such as politics or religion either get posted on the internet or held for ransom and blackmail. What had been private has now become public and monetised in many cases.

With onset of the coronavirus pandemic, if you have been working from home, dressed or not, using Zoom or whatever teleconferencing facility, your employer, irrespective of whether they are a public or private entity, has successfully intruded into your very private space. Be it meagre or substantial, this space has been made somewhat public for your colleagues to behold. No need to fret since you can see their possessions and accoutrements as well.

With the proliferation of surveillance cameras, AI-enabled face recognition algorithms and image databases, even one’s face has been privatised without the face owner’s permission or, more importantly, their awareness that it is happening.

IT companies have given a whole new meaning to the concept of public-private partnership. No wonder you hear the phrase ‘a win-win situation’ being bandied about all the time.

To quote the 20th century Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”