The horse meat phase


What does data and horse meat have in common? Some people want to consume it, and some people want to make it illegal to consume it — because to them consuming it is repugnant.

Repugnant is a fun word with a lot of meanings. One meaning I learned a while ago (thanks Elizabeth Eagen!) is when it's used to describe market opportunities that are deemed too gross to pursue. For a little more context, here's the guy who coined the term 'repugnant markets':

Repugnant is different from, say, disgusting. There are no laws against eating cockroaches in California, because nobody wants to eat cockroaches. The law of supply and demand takes care of that. But the reason there's a law against eating horse meat in California is because some people would like to eat horse meat, and others think that they're doing something repugnant.

We as individuals and as members of groups have to put work into developing an ethical framework that we stick to, refine over time, and build accountability to manage. Repugnant markets as a concept has me thinking that society goes through that process too. What is 'normal' or 'acceptable' is a litigated process through culture with constant pushing and pulling in opposing directions, to finally define — at least for a period — an equilibrium.

Pretty much since the beginning of humans, there has been a push and pull to help develop norms. It's how we tell ourselves it's time to move on as a society. Things don't always go in a positive direction, but the tug of war that is constant. Once there is momentum for a particular social direction, the other direction is cast as an extreme violation of social norms.

A personal analogy: I find cigarette smoke absolutely disgusting. And the fervency of that disgust is a a mechanism to help me stay quit. It's why I find the cancel culture crowd so laughable — do they not realise that we've been 'cancelling' people for generations?

Right now techno-market monopolies, data hoarding, and reckless resale using flimsy EULA's makes data like horse meat — without laws and regulations to prevent certain behaviours (data hoarding, infrastructure rent seeking, etc) people go buck wild.

We need to make this practices be more like eating horse meat — repugnant. And then hopefully, it will all become like eating cockroaches — where we don't even have to discuss how disgusting shady data practices are. If we can shift societal views of repugnance to include things like facial recognition, the systems of capitalism might be constrained by our collective feelings of disgust.

But this disgust doesn't happen by accident, it is manufactured. The right is extremely good at manufacturing disgust — and we need to get better at it. Pointing at things and calling them fascist won't cut it. So how do we use this mechanism of repugnant markets with data practices? That to me is the challenge. We can't rely on just regulation, we have to find ways to create a feeling of collective disgust that is specific and real. Otherwise capitalism will find a way to facilitate even the grossest of behaviours.

What are your ideas to make visceral, collective feelings of disgust about the types of behaviors we want to change in the technology world?

Let's work together to move into the cockroach phase 🐞 🐜


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