Users of the World, Unite!

What Marx’s theory of alienation tells us about our relationship with big data.

Human beings have become living, breathing, data-making machines.

When we wake up in the morning, before our feet even hit the door, we check our email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Our quantified selves move through the day, captured and counted by our wearable devices, every connected move we make tracked and traced by our very smart Things. Our existence as sentient sacks of flesh, blood, and bone, transformed through a tsunami of zeros and ones, becomes a source of tremendous value for the people who make the products, services, and internet that we consume.

According to a recent global Capgemini study of over 1,000 C-suite and senior decision makers, 63% believe that the monetization of data is becoming as big a source of value as their existing products and services. Boston Consulting Group has forecast that, by the year 2020, personal data could be worth as much as $1 trillion euros a year in Europe alone. How do we make sense of this chasm – the fact that our personal data is contributing to a trillion dollar economy, yet we, the users of Things who give life to this coveted commodity, have no way to realize the value of the data we create?

So what?

Karl Marx and the idea
of alienation

Part of Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism was the idea of alienation. Marx argued that within the capitalist mode
of production, workers no longer work to create things they need, use, or sell. Instead, within industrial capitalism, workers must sell their labor power for wages, by creating commodities that capitalists then sell on the market for profit. Marx believed that this situation meant that workers were separated, or alienated, from the outcomes of their labor. Fast forward to the proletariat revolution: workers of the world united, and socialism was born.

And while capitalism is still very much alive and well, socialism has left an indelible mark on global politics and economies. It’s interesting to consider what might happen in a future where users of social media, mobile apps, and connected and wearable devices rise up and reclaim the value of their data.

Weak signals of a data proletariat revolution:


An app and website that allows users to negotiate directly with companies that want access to their personal data.


A personal data marketplace that links to individual social media and payment accounts; it allows users to broker deals with parties interested in their data.


An app that allows its 26 million users to trade their gaming habits for rewards such as free hardware, discounts, and games.

Safe Harbour Legal Battle

In October 2015, The European Court of Justice (ECJ) made a landmark ruling with far reaching implications for tech giants, like Facebook and Google, looking to process data in Europe. This, along with the EU’s General Data Protection Legislation (GDPL), signal a possible future where access to personal data becomes highly regulated and potentially more difficult to profit from.

What if…

How would your business, industry, or category fare in a future where users demand the value of their personal data? Are you prepared for citizens who get smart and want a piece of the action?

/ As entire economies emerge around
the buying and selling of big data insights, how will revenues and valuations be impacted if the data market is disrupted by heavy regulation or grassroots movements to reclaim personal data?

/ What happens if privacy becomes a social norm, and data blocking becomes a regular part of how younger generations engage with the information they produce?

/ What role might loyalty play in delivering the value of data back to the users who create it?

/ What would a personal data bank look like, and how might traditional financial service players operate in that space?

/ For highly commoditized industries like pharmaceuticals, how might personal data banking be used to deliver better health outcomes and create competitive differentiation? What partnerships make sense in that ecosystem?

/ What kinds of hardware or software solutions could be used to provide users with visual access to the breakdowns
of their data ecosystems? What would a personal data dashboard look like, and how could it be used to empower users? ////

the author

Dr. Emma Aiken-Klar

Emma Aiken-Klar, PhD is VP, human insights at Idea Couture. See her full bio here.