With all of the news stories being published in recent days about social media data and privacy, I cannot help but be reminded of a not-so-great, yet brilliantly prophetic, film of the 1990’s. Let me first set the table. I was twenty-four years old and had just moved to Los Angeles to become a stand-up comedian. Months earlier, when I was a busboy at a Jersey Shore bar, I was constantly barraged by drunks shouting “Fire Marshall Bill!” This was due to my uncanny resemblance to Jim Carrey, referencing his recurring character in the critically-acclaimed sketch comedy show of the time “In Living Color“. My resemblance to him was not the only connection. Ever since I saw Carrey impersonate the entire cast of “My Three Sons” on Johnny Carson in 1983, I was hooked. I wanted to be him.
In the summer of 1995, the third installment of the Batman film series was premiering. Yes, Tim Burton was not directing. And yes, Michael Keaton was replaced by Val Kilmer as Batman. But the great Jim Carrey was playing The Riddler! This was sure to top Jack Nicholson’s Joker, right?! I was first in line and sitting in the front row for this soon-to-be canonized masterpiece. OK, notsomuch. Although it had its moments, it did not live up to the Burton/Keaton films. On the plus side, “Batman Forever” had the benefit of being followed by the George Clooney-led disaster “Batman and Robin” so it will not, by any means, be referenced as the worst of the Batman films.
In “Batman Forever”, the villainous Edward Nygma aka The Riddler is a former Wayne Enterprises employee who forms his own tech company, NygmaTech. Here, Nygma soon develops a device for every home in Gotham called “The Box” that beamed signals to and from the human brain in order to simulate the ultimate immersive television-viewing experience! “The Box” had one dangerous side effect. It allowed NygmaTech to read viewers’ minds, as well as augment The Riddler’s own intelligence with consumer data. In the film’s crescendo, The Riddler has absorbed all of the thoughts of all of the citizens of Gotham. He then exclaims, “FOR IF KNOWLEDGE IS POWER… THEN A GOD AM I!!!” This was a very defining moment for me in that, I determined that using the thoughts of others for your own gain is the ultimate in power and, should I say, the ultimate desire of every form of evil.
Fast forward to 2018. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg is being questioned by Congress due to the publication of a story that exposed Facebook’s sale of its users’ private data to a political consulting firm. This event revealed a number of things to me. First, Mr. Zuckerberg was not being questioned under oath, which means there are no criminal consequences to any deceptive or inaccurate statements he may make. Second, an overwhelming number of the questioners were recipients of campaign donations by Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Amazon. Third, a few politicians seemed perturbed by Facebook’s ability to accumulate consumer data (come on, be real, their thoughts) and use it to gain power. Let’s face it, people. Whether we are discussing the current guy in the hot seat, Mr. Zuckerberg, or Eric Schmidt, or Jeff Bezos, we are discussing the same situation. This is the ability for tech companies to, using the ruse of making our lives more convenient, steal our thoughts and use them for personal gain.
I am, by no means, condemning these companies for their ability to create products that make our lives more convenient. What I am saying, however, is that there is a price for “free” and that human nature encourages tech companies to steal your thoughts without a contract based on a financial exchange. As I have been saying for years, “If you aren’t at the table… you’re dinner.” Whatever adage you use, whatever philosophy you adapt, there is one thing that is guaranteed. If you do not have a contract based on an exchange of funds, you are completely volunteering your inner-most thoughts to be owned and used by the most self-serving of individuals.
Look. I’m a Calvinist. Humans are essentially self-serving. It’s not their fault. It’s our nature. However, it is your responsibility to know that no one has your best interest but yourself and a few trusted individuals. Everyone else, no matter their level of perceived selfishness, is looking to exploit you for their gain. So, when you receive an invitation to a free service on the Web and there is no pay tier with a separate TOS (Terms of Service)? And you want privacy? Skip it. You’ll thank me.