Data Mining: The Price to Pay for Our “Free Parking” in Cyberspace

I can hear him now: “Come one, come all. Enter my parking lot and spend as much time as you want and it is free.” So says the P.T. Barnum of cyberspace. Welcome to the biggest parking lot in the world. At one time that parking lot grew so big it threatened to eat itself. Entering it is free, unusual for a parking lot. Once inside behind its flimsy fence, you can basically park where you want. So, welcome. There is no obligation, at least on the surface, to do anything but lie there like a dead fish. You can, if you desire, promote the self you want others to see. Parking spots are available to everyone. When you take your spot, the parking lot owner ask nothing of you except, and this is the main hitch, that it allows them, though in secret, to gather everything there is to know about you and more. It is the hidden information they want as you deeply implant yourself in a cozy place on their site. Of course, they always do this without you knowing what they, the proprietors, are doing. Parking free in a crowded city is everyone’s dream. It is something people are unwilling to give up without a fight.

Yes, parking is free. If you wish, staying in your self-designated spot is yours forever. Saying what you want is also free as long as you abide by the rules of socially acceptable conduct. As you maneuver your way into your permanent parking spot, you think, this is terrific — so far, so good. But wait. Are you sure this is as easy as it looks? It is fun. You can post pictures of yourself and others in your life or discuss things about your life. Mostly, everything posted on the site is fleeting. Here today. Gone tomorrow. But your friends are permanent. What a relief. To be friendless would be horrible, especially in the tough world in which we live. If you delve deeply into your parking space, everything you posted is there for the taking, for the seeing, for the reliving, if you want.

You feel so good about your place in the parking lot, that you never want the experience to end. You want this fairy tale communication to last forever. But, wait there is a catch. There is always a  catch. The people who own and run the parking lot want to make money off your back from all the public and private information they have been collecting from the moment you drive onto to their site. When you got your parking space you, in your naivete never thought you would have to pay for anything. Surprise. That is not enough to make them  rich. And the rich only want to get richer. They decide to sell stock in the lot. The sale fails miserably. People who park apparently do not want to invest in the land they sit on. They do not want the free ride ever to end. Outside investors flee. The stock tumbles into the land of the negative.

The way to get big money out of the parking arena is to sell advertising on a variety of platforms. It seems that the parking lot owners are having difficulty getting advertisers to buy space on the many mobile devices in the marketplace. Mobile devices only work when people vacate their parking space. If this seems simplistic, it is. Mainly all the people who park for free do not want to spend their money, let alone their time and energy to avail themselves of the advertising already present on every available inch of the parking lot that is now a huge multi-level parking garage with no limit to how big it can grow. Growth does not always translate into cash.

Those who park free are fickle. They are the same as teenagers who fall in and out of love at the drop of a pixel. There are other parking lots and garages everywhere in cyberspace. Most are much smaller than the one I am describing. They are for the taking or using, whatever the preference of the explorer. They will grow incrementally only if they fit a lemming-like need or they will disappear if their standards are too high or too demanding. After all, if your friends are occupying a new parking space, you should too, if you want to remain friends. As an aside, do you know that an early meaning of friend had as its base the word love? Do we really love all our friends? I think not, but that is for another essay at another time.

The other day the main proprietor of the parking lot said that people have been too quick to condemn his plans for the future of the world. His world is one that  never stops moving. Being stationary is evil and cuts down on his revenue. It is a world in which he wants his parking spaces always full to increase his revenue. He says he wants to make the world in which we live and beyond into a “more open and connected place.” One billion spaces are not enough for his vision. He want everyone to occupy a slot in his parking lot. He is a dreamer whose thoughts border on arrogance. We know that ambition is great. Yet a question remains. Will the person who spends his or life embedded on what he or she believes is the turf owned by them, pony up and pay the price for parking now and into the future? There is no guarantee that those who occupy his space, especially in the fluid world in  which we now live, will buy into his dream.

Editor’s Note: All photographs by Lars K. Flem.