Saturday, October 31, 2020

"Subscriber City: What happens when you need an app to access anything"

 From Real Life magazine:

At their base, most of the apps on your phone have a simple value proposition: When you want something, you can tap on a screen. Pizza, mortgages, a ride, groceries, you name it — they all can be hailed through the user interface, which commands a mix of information and criminally cheap labor to fulfil your request. You don’t have to go anywhere or talk to anyone.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has opened up new frontiers for this basic business model, as the surging demand for grocery and prepared-food delivery suggests. Typically, pandemics require us to cooperate and compromise until the danger subsides, but apps offer a different approach: They merge the need to isolate with a celebration of convenience, as though having our access to the world mediated by tech companies were the silver lining.

Already, apps excel at offering private, individualized solutions to collective problems that urge us to participate in exploiting one another. As subways crumble and housing prices reach stupendous heights, we get apps that ration car rides and single-bedroom efficiencies. But Covid’s wake may bring a maturation and hybridization of these systems as part of tech companies’ broader agenda: to serve as gatekeepers and toll collectors capable of extracting profit from “identity management,” resource allocation, and access control long after this pandemic has passed. Such systems — which will link insurance, health, financial, and advertising data to profile us against our will (much as credit rating companies have for decades) — already may determine the cost of your car insurance premiums, what job ads you see, and whether or not you will be offered bail. But they may ultimately come to administer our access to everything we associate with the freedom of urban life.

When a 2012 Microsoft patent filing posited a method for taking “the user through neighborhoods with violent crime statistics below a certain threshold,” it spurred a flurry of articles about whether such a project was racist. Yes, it was, but the bigger picture is how crime data may be used alongside data on purchasing histories, demographic information, and land prices to dictate where people live their lives. For example, the patent also described displaying in-car advertisements (“stop at a highway exit for a cup of coffee”) and then monitoring the driver to see if they made that purchase, so that the advertiser could be charged for the ad conversion. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where a driver originating from a poor part of town is steered with ads for rent-a-centers, check cashing, and fast food, or one in which a black-owned business is charged double for an ad conversion because there was an armed robbery in the vicinity two days ago. And so on. The various inputs that go into the value of a location for a particular transaction can be assessed and prices adjusted accordingly in a matter of minutes instead of years.

There are already highway toll lanes with dynamically adjusted congestion pricing, but dynamic pricing can easily move beyond the car. Amazon — an early leader in automating price discrimination — has already bought Whole Foods; how long before different customers are charged different prices for the same goods in physical grocery stores? How soon will a credit card reward system dictate your place in line for the doctors’ office, the DMV, or the breadline? How soon before paywalls go up around the public spaces we are used to crossing unhindered, before services that once seemed available to all on equal terms become subject to priority tiers?....