If the App is Free, Are We the Product, Sold Like a Human Slave?

Last fall, in the five minutes a week I spend on Facebook, I shared a provocative idea. It raised a question, a push-back, even a disagreement. Take a look:

I’m grateful for Greg’s push-back, as it inspired this (long delayed) post. I don’t debate on social media, but I welcome debate in blog comments. As you read, think about what I’m saying and feel free to push back too.

My statement was short and pithy, so it deserves explanation. Let’s walk through it together.

We’re the Product

The first sentence was: “If the app is free, we’re the product.” I don’t think Greg was debating this point.

You know how Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, Pinterest, and all similar platforms make their gazillions? By selling you and me to the highest bidding advertiser.

We all know this. We see the ads and get creeped out sometimes because they’re so relevant it’s like they’ve been listening to the conversations in our head. (Are they? Or are they creating the conversations in our head? Hmmm…)

How do these companies make even more gazillions? Keep us staring at their app as long as possible. How do they do that?

They hire top behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists to make us want to keep using their products. They shape our desires. That’s why many people are spending more than a full-time job consuming digital media. And it’s why Big Tech companies are so incredibly profitable. They’re really good at what they do.

So what is the product being sold? Answer: follow the money. If we’re not paying, who’s dumping the truckloads of cash into the vaults of these companies?

Advertisers. They are willing to spend a fortune to put their messages in front of our eyes. Why? Because it works! We are motivated by what we see. With time and repetition, we change our behavior by their command.

These days, many advertisements entice us into more screen time: the latest streaming show, the newest game, another social media app to keep up with, on and on.

What product are these advertisers buying? Air? Wireless signals? Words on a digital page?

No. They are buying you. Your time. Your attention. Your future. Everything that makes you who you are — your very identity. They’re buying the right to shape you into who they want you to become.

  • They are buying the power to manipulate you.
  • They are buying the right to influence you.
  • They are buying the most powerful mind-shaping technologies ever invented and pointing them at you.

And we know this, deep down. But we keep spending hours on their platforms anyway.

Why?

They make us think that what’s on social media or the video game or the streaming video service deserves more of our attention.

They make us believe that nothing in the real world is more important than the next funny meme or sexy photo or inspirational saying or conspiracy theory or sports gossip or friend’s vacation.

With all this, I believe we can agree that “If the app is free, we’re the product.” If you don’t agree (or even if you do), please tell me in the comments.

Like a Slave?

Let’s move on to the more controversial second sentence: “A human for sale — like a slave.”

This is what Greg had a problem with, and rightly so. He said, “I’m not sure I agree with the correlation. Slavery is forced labor, not whatever this is.” A great point.

Consider the wicked, evil, despicable slavery in the American Southeast from the 17th-19th centuries. People made in the image of God were captured from their homelands, imported, and sold to work in plantations. They were forced to labor against their wills. They had no freedom. They were treated as property to be bought and sold.

And to keep this system alive, the slaves were dehumanized — often by the same racist ideas that Charles Darwin later made popular — to help the exploiters feel better about all the money they were making on the whiplashed backs of these oppressed people.

One way they kept slaves in bondage was by forbidding education. Many slaves weren’t even allowed to learn to read. Masters knew that education was a path to freedom.

Unlike us, slaves didn’t think about finding their “dream job.” They were, as Greg said, “forced” to work against their wills. Through coercion, abuse, beatings, and threats of death, their wills were broken, they were made to submit to the power of those who exploited them.

The wickedness of that system of forced labor brought pain and injustice and horror into the lives of precious image bearers.

This doesn’t sound anything like what’s happening today, does it? What does a young 21st century mom who forgets about her baby while she scrolls Instagram have in common with a young 18th century mom whose baby is ripped away from her and sold to another plantation? Or what do today’s teens who spend their lives crafting their TikTok personas have in common with the teens who were raised to believe that slavery was all they were good for?

Greg is right: physical slavery is very different from today’s screen time.

Is This Slavery Too?

And yet, there are all kinds of slavery. Compare these stories:

Imagine a strong young African man in 1810, raised in a family of craftsmen, in love with a beautiful young lady down the way. He’s working hard to hone his craft and start his own business so he can marry her, start a family, and bless his community by his honorable life. He’s dreaming of the impact his family and his work will make on the world.

Then one day, a slave ship arrives and kidnaps him, binds him in chains and ships him to Virginia. He’s sold to a plantation and forced to pick cotton. He never sees the girl again, never builds that business, and his community is never blessed by his work, service, and example. Since the system of slavery pounds its reality into him constantly, he gives up hope and his dreams die.

Now, imagine a boy raised today, one who is gifted in math, art, and science, who dreams of inventing new farm equipment that feeds millions while improving the environment. He draws machines, reads about them, and dreams of making the world a better place.

Until his 13th birthday, when his parents get him a phone because all his friends have one. He is soon pulled into social media, video games, and pornography, spending 6-12 hours a day immersed in these virtual worlds. His grades fall, his dreams fade to the background, and by the time he’s 20, he’s so addicted that he just wants some minimum wage job that’ll give him enough to stay online.

What’s similar in these stories?

  • Each young man was captured by a system that keeps him from the life he was made for.
  • With the dreams lost or forgotten, and each system so pervasive and overwhelming, neither man can even imagine a different life than the one which has enslaved him.
  • Someone else benefits from sale of each of these human lives, whether a plantation owner or a tech company executive.

Less Than Human

Consider one more thing: to enslave someone, a master has to look at them as less than human. It’s a lot easier to exploit and abuse that slave with a mindset that says they’re not a real person.

Online worlds are dehumanizing. At the extremes, we know people who can’t look another human in the eye, but who only are comfortable chatting online. Or others who have “digital courage” and say things through the internet they’d never say face-to-face.

Video games are especially dehumanizing. They teach us to devalue people so much that we’re willing to kill people for fun. Same strategy used in military simulations to help soldiers learn to kill without thinking. (Don’t believe me? Watch a world-class expert, Lt. Col. David Grossman.)

The Silicon Valley creators of our virtual worlds do not see their users as human. We’re just a collection of data points to be manipulated—neurologically whipped into shape until we do the things that make our tech overlords richer, at the cost of our God-given purpose.

Does it make a difference that in physical slavery, the slaves don’t want to be forced into that life, while in screen obsession, we want to give our lives to our screens? I don’t think so. What would be better for a slave master than to be able to program the desires of each slave, so they wanted to do what they were told? A happy slave is still a slave.

What do you think? Do you know anyone who is enslaved by their screens? Losing the lives they were created for and being sold to the next highest online bidder?

I welcome the ongoing discussion with you below.

  1. I appreciate the nuanced thoughts, Doug.

    I agree that the term “slave” is loaded with our cultural context, and also that there are forms of slavery other than the terrible type practice in our nation’s past.

    In John 8:34, Jesus himself says, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” I think that paradigm applies very well to everyone who gets sucked into the digital vortex over and over without realizing it, myself included! Other New Testament references with similar language apply, as well.

    So the modern advertising-driven economy certainly isn’t forced labor, but for those with a biblical worldview, I think the concept of spiritual and mental slavery is a helpful way to frame it.

    Reply

    1. Thank you, Ty! I especially appreciate the excellent scripture reference. I’d add Romans 6:16-18 (ESV):

      “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

      Reply

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