Consumers are ignorant. They just don’t care about topics like payments, money and finance.
In finance and tech, this narrative continues to go unquestioned. The constant drumbeat is the equivalent of a rattling office air conditioning vent, an accepted reality we hear in the background but seldom question or investigate.
I’ll gloss over how grossly arrogant that statement is so as not to digress into the absurd use of acronyms and jargon used by these two sectors. Instead I’ll focus on how the rise of the Information Age gives consumers the ability to read an enormous amount of diverse opinions on nearly any subject, in turn democratizing these industries.
Consumers, inundated with all this information, are starting to demand that the companies they patronize are aligned with their values. There’s still a long way to go, but money as tool for dissent is quickly being realized.
When Chick-Fil-A’s chief operating officer opposed same sex marriage, LGBT activists and supporters boycotted the fast food chain and business partners sever ties.
When Uber’s executives make misogynistic comments and turn a blind eye to rape culture, women turn off the app. When the company continued a summer discount leading to fare cuts, drivers turned off the app in what was called the first strike of the sharing economy.
One of the more interesting ‘bring your pitchfork’ protests in the past several years was the backlash caused by Facebook’s mood manipulation experiment.
About a year ago, Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences published the findings of an experiment Facebook ran in 2012. The social media behemoth took a group of nearly 700,000 Facebook users (kicker: without consent) and tipped the emotional litany of their News Feeds.
One group was shown 10% more negative content and the other 10% more positive content.
The study found that users that viewed predominantly more negative material, posted gloomier updates and those that viewed happier feeds used more positive language. This is how the study put it: results had shown “emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.”
Fascinating, but at the hands of a company focused on profit-making, a bit terrifying.
Couple this with another 2012 Facebook experiment where the social network showed users more “hard news” right before the presidential election. The study found that the tweak might have improved voter turnout by as much as 3%.
Now, I’d argue, getting more people to vote is a positive use of manipulation on Facebook’s part, but without transparent reporting and proper management, it could get out of hand. Could you sway people into voting Democrat or Republican?
The controversy brought about a new conversation on whether people know and understand what Facebook looks like on the back end. In the beginning, the sentiment towards Facebook was that it was a self-sacrificing corporation, forgoing fees to allow family, friends and acquaintances to keep in touch.
But as society begins to understand the real motives behind the hooded Zuck, there’s been a significant amount of pushback. This can be seen in the fairly large number of people deactivating their Facebook for sometimes ever and other times a couple months.
While their numbers keep growing, social media platforms haven’t innovated for nearly a decade.
Tech and finance companies create systems to dumb down consumers, under the guise of convenience, in an effort to secure a job for another several years. To educate themselves, consumers are always working against companies that would rather keep their processes a secret.
These industries should instead strive to make products and services that empower consumers to learn more about the world around them.
A shake up is coming. The current monarchs are being nudged in directions that give power back to the people.
Nathan Schneider, a technology and economics reporter and professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder says it best in “Owning What We Share”:
“We have a choice. We can veer toward Uber and Mechanical Turk, where work is insecure, impersonal, and on someone else’s terms. Or we can create online workplaces that a democratic society deserves. This means that the people who work to cultivate them—whether they’re users at home or programmers in an office—can help make decisions and reap the benefits. This means financing projects through resources that we manage together as a commons, rather than relying on inequality-producing markets. This might also mean deflating a dot-com bubble or two.”
It’s the same restructuring the banking industry is soon to go through. With the birth of non-bank financial services providers from telco-operated M-PESA to distributed Bitcoin, the traditional financial institutions are going to have to rework how they serve consumers.
The big banks are consistently squeezed, whether it’s caps on interchange or overdraft fees.
Benjamin Jackson, director of the Prepaid Advisory Service at Mercator Advisory Group, a financial services consultancy and analyst house outside of Boston, outlined one way a bank could rework its business model to stay relevant amidst all the disruption. In the white paper, titled ““The Six Million Dollar Customer: Using Technology to Build a Profitable Customer Base” Jackson advocates that banks use big data to help consumers manage their personal finances.
Consumers, Jackson thinks, will set goals, such as saving $8,000 to drive around the contiguous US. The consumer, let’s say her name is Bailey, can then have a portion of her paycheck move directly into a separate savings account for that goal. If Bailey decides she needs the new Samsung Galaxy S6 and goes to make the purchase, pulling money from her road trip fund, the bank might decline the charge or at least suggest doing so.
While the ‘bank knows best’ sentiment may be intended to advise and educate people on effective budgeting, surveillance of this nature is the opposite of empowering and likely won’t be successfully undiscerning and a tad ominous.
Now Bailey’s plan includes reaching that savings goal, quitting her job and then spending the next five months exhausting all that money. Maybe I’m not being creative enough, but I can’t see the bank being particularly happy with Bailey’s decision. Bailey is now only costing the financial institution without any ability to make them money.
It’s about “long-term thinking and redefining when you get the profit,” Jackson says. After putting 30,000 miles on a 2008 Ford Escape, it’s possible Bailey will need a new vehicle and as she’s getting back into the workforce she might need a loan to get that vehicle.
Banks must start focusing on the long-term value of the customer. According to Jackson, if banks would focus on making all their customers wealthier, they would in fact make themselves wealthier. It’s a win, win, he says.
Unfortunately capitalism doesn’t work that way.
Unchecked, globalized capitalism cares only about maximizing earnings. Companies aren’t incentivized to invest in local infrastructure. In the banking system example, the focus on profits over people is the reason the inequality gap widens.
I’m all for helping people better manage their finances and prioritize spending appropriately, but I’d prefer if it didn’t support putting nearly all control in the hands of the big banks, which in 2008 insincerely fucked us. A system that warrants willing participation of the economic machine, instead of forcing it, seems a more appropriate one in a country that regularly vilifies socialism.
Allowing the mega-capitalized elite to make money off the backs of the poor is repulsive.
And a system motivated purely toward profit is unsustainable.
Which is why there’s movement back to local financial institutions, such as credit unions and cooperatives, which have a stake in seeing the community they serve thrive.They care about cultivating local wealth, playing to a town nationalism that keeps capitalism in check.
This is also why Bitcoin was so interesting in its infancy. Bitcoin provide a peer-to-peer system, allowing individuals to take currency and security into their own hands.
Because it was open source, it has also allowed others to experiment with the code, tweaking it here and there to test other functions, such as proof-of-work mining that puts energy towards a useful task such as protein folding.
Bitcoin encouraged a highly skilled demographic to learn about monetary policy and payment systems. It was and continues to be an experiment to determine whether there’s a better way.
Although, most entrepreneurs in the Bitcoin space today are building systems that look more and more like the traditional financial system. Sleek user interfaces with industry buzzwords–decentralized and blockchain for example–allow consumers to be conveniently ignorant to how the system works. They’re focused on profit, not empowerment.
The many times exaggerated, anti-establishment narrative of anarchists and libertarians is being drowned out by capitalists. And that’s amiss, because these kinds of voices are needed to keep a system subdued.
This is similar to the gentrification and in turn, weakening of the hacker ethos, as Brett Scott, an activist and writer based in London, purposefully picked apart in “The Hacker Hacked.” A hacker is one who empowers individuals by opening up access to those that were kept in the dark, not a Silicon Valley funded tech entrepreneur doing a bit of coding to make a tool banks can use to exploit inefficiencies in the system at the expense of those that cannot afford it.