Alarm over growth of ‘human stock market’

Control panel: NewNew allows users to dictate influencers’ everyday activities.

Should selling the power to decide your personal choices be illegal? A new app allows people to pay for the pleasure of ‘controlling’ someone else’s life. Harmless fun? Or a slippery slope?

“Yo guys, have you ever wanted to control my life? Well, now is the time.”

These are the words of influencer Lev Cameron on the social media platform NewNew.

NewNew allows fans to participate in his everyday decisions. Should he eat cereal or toast? Wear a red dress or blue jeans? See a film or go shopping?

Users can pay to vote in regular polls, then watch the result. “We’re building an economy of attention where you purchase moments in other people’s lives,” says founder and CEO Courtne Smith.

NewNew, which describes itself as a “human stock market,” is a human token platform – a new type of app that seeks to make more money out of the lives of influencers so they become a tradable commodity.

The platforms are quickly catching on. The soon to be launched BitClout, which lets people trade on celebrity reputations, has already collected $160m (£117m) in funding.

For many this is just harmless fun – if spending £5 to choose the type of pizza a TikTokker orders for supper is defined as fun.

But some see more serious ethical ramifications. Izabella Kaminska of the Financial Times reminds readers: “The last time we turned people into tradable assets, it didn’t work out so well for the assets.”

Comparing today’s influencers to the transatlantic slave trade might seem a stretch. Slavery involves coercion into unpaid labour and lifelong bondage. People elect to join human-token platforms to increase their income. And they can choose the aspects of their life controlled by others.

But others would say that by allowing human time to be bought and sold, NewNew shows some parallels. It allows an influencer’s freedom to be curtailed by the whims of others. As slaves were traded according to their abilities, so are influencers ranked according to their popularity.

While the degree is very different, there are similar principles at stake. “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves”, wrote US President and abolitionist Abraham Lincoln. Seen this way, to participate in the human token market is to hamper freedom.

Indeed, NewNew may set a worrying precedent for how we treat the freedom of others. If we can control what an influencer eats, drinks and names a hamster, who is to say we will not eventually demand more control?

Human stock market enthusiasts would argue that such talk is alarmist. They could also argue that it is nothing new.

We regularly give up control in our lives: whether to the demands of teachers and employers, or the desires of family and friends. Being traded on a human stock market is no different.

And assigning monetary value to people’s time is nothing new. Indeed, it happens every day. Salaries and wages give people a sum in return for their labour. Insurance premiums and credit ratings are worked out by assessing a person’s riskiness and lifestyle.

Just as dating apps reveal the raw mechanics behind meeting partners, human token apps expose the way in which we assign financial value to people. The problem was already there. The apps just make it clearer.

Should selling the power to decide your personal choices be illegal?

Laughing stock

Naturally, say some. The power to decide our actions is a fundamental part of what makes human life special. We become ourselves through our choices. By turning ourselves into controllable commodities, we sacrifice this right and invite potential exploitation. And worse, we evoke the spectre of serfdom and slavery: appalling states that should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Never, say others. As we have the freedom to act, we have the freedom to let others decide our actions for us. The new apps just make accepted aspects of contemporary life — control by laws, orders from employers, the monetisation of human skills in the workplace — more explicit. These surrenders of freedom happen every day without comment. Human stock markets are no different.

You Decide

  1. Should influencers be paid for their content?
  2. Would you rather be undervalued or overvalued?

Activities

  1. In groups, come up with an idea for a new social media platform that allows influencers to make money. Present your project to the class.
  2. Write a story from the perspective of a NewNew user whose poll results begin to intrude into their everyday life.

Some People Say...

“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 — 1832), German poet and polymath

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Thinkers generally agree that there are numerous kinds of freedom. In his 1958 essay, Two Concepts of Liberty, political philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between negative freedom and positive freedom. The first describes freedom from the interference of others, while the second describes the freedom to control oneself. It is possible to attain one type of freedom without the other. An addict, for instance, might be free from external restraints, but lack self-control.
What do we not know?
Although liberal democracies regard freedom as an important value, there remains debate over what form that freedom should take. In contemporary Western politics, leftist politicians tend to believe that governments should provide people with the support to live freer lives, while the right tends to see government as inherently threatening to freedom. Many ongoing arguments — gun control in the US or regulations during the pandemic — stem from this fundamental conflict.

Word Watch

Stock market
A place where stocks or shares are traded. Stocks are securities that represent the ownership of a fraction of a company.
Tradable commodity
A basic good that is interchangeable with other goods of the same type, such as gas, grain and gold.
Ramifications
Complex or unwelcome consequences. It descends from a French phrase meaning “branching out”.
Transatlantic slave trade
Between the 16th and 19th Centuries, an estimated 12.8 million Africans were enslaved and forcibly shipped across the Atlantic by Europeans.
Coercion
To persuade someone to do something using force or threats, from the Latin verb coerce meaning “to restrain”.
Abolitionist
A movement that began among English and American Quakers in the 18th Century that aimed to halt the transatlantic slave trade for moral and religious reasons.
Alarmist
Someone who exaggerates a danger to cause senseless worry or panic.
Trivial
Of little value or importance. In the Middle Ages, it meant something that belonged to the trivium: the three basic school subjects grammar, logic and rhetoric.

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