Digital market and the (im)moral economy

Digital market and the (im)moral economy

Science & Technology

The COVID-19 pandemic has facilitated the rapid expansion of e-commerce and virtual digital trade, commerce and financial transactions. Many have found an apocalyptic end of the socially participated marketplaces and face-to-face contact to save themselves from the pandemic. In a sense, safety becomes the key concern that ironically confines citizens into digital platforms and shrinks the space of personal liberty, social interaction and presence of the human collectives and communities.

One is reminded of Benjamin Franklins’ warning, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” If in the name of safety, the ‘social contract’ is relinquished and it is replaced by the state’s authority to govern the private citizens’ lives in exchange for safety and security, it ends up benefiting the minions of the digital markets that set up a new normal for citizens. The larger picture is that of a cognitive supply chain with algorithms not only favouring the rich and the powerful but also enfeebling those essential liberties and rights of the aam admi (common people) that protect them from ethical, political and economic adversity.

What philosopher Michael Sandel characterised as a transition from market relations in socially necessary fields like healthcare, education and human security to an overall ‘market society’ is seemingly taking a digital turn at this opportune moment during a pandemic. In such digital ecosystems, simulation-based models of a market comprising of artificial traders can hype up a product and incentivise the real flesh and blood customers through inflated or swing prices.

Such ‘simulacra’ customer management sways market sentiments in favour of corporate houses. A lot of such ‘pump and dump’ schemes by social bots turn the consumers into willing partners into windfall gains that in the long run surely crash before it revives itself in another scheme. This picture of digital markets restrains choice-based consent and limits it to partially informed advantages. In matters like healthcare, sedatives, steroids and stimulants become the most favoured line of treatment, as lifesaving drugs. Ventilators and oxygen go in short supply. Digital economy tweaks choices, restrains access to essential resources and dilutes ethical practices to market sentiments, even if it creates moral hazards.

 An artificial intelligence-controlled collusive behaviour on the part of human traders and customers are the outcome of uncontrolled digital deals that might tamper with the sovereign individuals who are the supposed bearers of Adam Smith’s ‘moral sentiments’. Market sentiments erode ‘moral sentiments’ and digital markets distort the coherence of norms set by ‘invisible hands’ of a market society. Digital markets that emerged as the state’s attempts to ensure safety for citizens’ lives, now shape up benefitting organised and powerful corporate cartels that rule these digital markets across all consumer products, be it food, vaccines, books or electronic goods. It can equate junk and the fresh by sheer campaigns.

A moral hazard of such a digital marketplace is the way the bot called ‘Tay on the Twitter’, which learnt abuses from the trolls, heaped it back upon a feminist activist. Similarly, data breaches expose the users to the risk of new modalities of crimes. What is even more dangerous is ‘synthesized videos’ used by malicious bots to inflict cyber harm on targets and any user can become an easy target.  

Both state and non-state actors use botnets to surreptitiously control infected devices to use their combined computing powers to hack, spy and disable targets like personal databases, commercial, financial and security establishments. In terms of intention, such attacks cannot be attributed to bots, as the intention is a non-agreed function that is emergent from human-computer interaction and perception. As botnets cannot be attributed with intent, it helps to distance the actus reus of the perpetrator and allow them the escape route of impunity. As a result, botmasters enjoy economic incentive in the digital marketplace to spread these bot networks can be used for mining cryptocurrency, credit card fraud and distributed denial of services etc, and create it for the highest bidders.

The bots can further position themselves as autonomous agents (AA) by camouflaging their point of origin, while they can feed their masters confidential information so that the targeted victim suffers definitive harm in multiple socio-economic parameters. The deployer of an autonomous agent can use it to torture, interrogate, extract information or even to psychologically harass a target human person by distancing the actus reus from the deployer, as the deployer may free himself from compassion, emotional attachment or by obfuscating liability by physical distance while the act of torture is carried out by the AA on a human person. Indeed such a script of lethal cyber-harms threatens the digital platforms of the economy, benefitting the malicious user, whose identity cannot be decrypted.

Given this default and design difficulty in fixing liability on cyber-attackers, there is a greater risk that threatens liberty and freedom of speech of internet users. It may be that ‘the negative sense of being able to prevent others from getting information about us’ is no longer there with someone. In a sense, cyberspace itself can be used to curtail and abridge various freedoms like privacy rights and the right to dissent by deploying surveillance and secret watch. Indeed, digital marketplaces facilitated a direct connection between cyberattack and surveillance, as personal data breaches provide routes to both these kinds of action.

Though cyberattacks do not enjoy any legitimacy, surveillance assumes both legality and legitimacy by subjecting users to irrevocable meta-consent as the new social contract in digital, virtual and cyberspaces. The compulsive nature of such meta-consent as a bargain for cyber-security as well as for data protection only places the burden of guilt and liability on the user.  The user gets pre-implicated, while breach of users’ privacy falls between the grey zone of balancing security and liberty. The ecosystem of the digital market, therefore, constructs the human agency and utilises underlying technological structures to give meanings to both security and surveillance mechanisms. Thus, digital markets create contested information spaces where the defence of users’ rights versus the powers of governmental institutions remain locked up in a battle of moral legitimacy.

The digital marketplace makes it possible to reduce the human person into a node, or better, into datasets on its networks. Technology can always hide the first originator of a dataset and keep it in the form of a bot. Can a bot be punished under any law? The digital life of such reduced persona-cum-bot is endowed with nominal rights of privacy and liberty, as such rights are already subjected to the arbitrary ordeal of policing, profiling, moralising. Such is the mechanism to make users compromise those rights that define a human person and her dignity as a digitally reduced human person into a bot cannot have any such rights like the right to privacy. So, in the digital market, human values can be denied existential social space as the machinic logic takes over the political and moral considerations.

This is how digital marketplaces make it impossible for the marginalised segments of society by making them ‘illegible’ in political and economic affairs, if not completely ‘ineligible’. The digital market creates a sharp Orwellian separation in cyberspaces to structure an asymmetric power that makes users entirely transparent, while the surveillance mechanisms themselves remain opaque.

In the name of safety and security concerns, privacy breaches have been normalised by thinning down the line between legal surveillance and forms of illicit attacks. The growth of digital trading and the increase in economic transactions in cyberspace now provides both the final reason and justification for increased control by both state and non-state actors.

Such a situation has been predicted in a profound book, “The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones-Confronting a New Age of Threat”, recently published by legal scholars Benjamin Wittes and Gabrielle Blum. The situation is summed up by the authors, “the cyber platform clearly offers both individuals and larger entities many new modalities of attack, some with direct parallels to earlier forms of victimization, some that seem more novel. And the costs of defending against many types of cybercrime are generally huge in comparison to the direct costs of the attacks themselves.” Once the right to privacy is breached in this manner, the resultant insecurity defeats all ethical-legal injunctions that could have given healthy immunity to digital markets.

Associate Professor of Philosophy at North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. An author and Human Rights’ activist with academic specialisation in Continental Philosophy, Political Economy and Political Philosophy.

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