Data Privacy, Mr. Needful, and Philosophy of 'Free'​

Anmol Mohan
"Don't pay for cool stuff with your soul. Pay for it with money" - Rick (Something Ricked This Way Comes)

A lot of people these days are concerned about their data privacy. Trust is becoming a major issue for big technology companies. Even governments are getting involved and are curbing the data-hungry nature of the products that we are using today. The question needs to be asked, what led us to this point? Why did we let our data go so far that we need our governments (who don't trust them either) to rescue us? Were we tricked or are we stupid? or does the truth lie somewhere in the middle like everything else in this world?

Mr. Needful

In Rick and Morty S01E09 (Something Ricked This Way Comes), we are introduced to a character called Mr. Needful. He is a version of the biblical Devil who owns an antique store except all items have some kind of magical power. People can come to the store, pick whichever item is likely to give them the pleasure they are seeking, and leave without paying anything. Sounds familiar?

Everything sounds dandy. Except the item attaches a curse to the person owning it, which makes it impossible to enjoy their new-found powers. Mr. Goldenfold gets a cologne to make women attracted to him and it works. But it also takes an axe to his potency (no pun intended). Once he realizes this fact, he confronted by his flaws by the Devil. Therein lies the philosophy of free.

The business of free

Social Media is great. An easy way to stay in touch with your friends, to make new ones, engage in banter, share updates and receive love. Sounds like a fairy tale. Except, why wouldn't you want to pay for it?

All the messengers and media that you consume throughout the day, costs a lot of money to someone. Since it costs money, that someone also needs to earn money. That money should be more than what they are spending. Servers, Employees, Marketing, Offices, and Third-party tools are essential for the survival of the app. These costs are beyond some salaried professionals working part-time. It requires the efforts and costs of a full-fledged company.

In the end, nothing is free. If you are not paying for it, someone else is. But more importantly, if you are not paying for it with money, there has to be a way by which you are paying for it. Understanding this flow of money is key to understand why your data is so valuable.

Data is Power or Power is Data?

Mr. Needful does not want money from his customers. He figured out very early in his career that no one will pay anything for old, creepy stuff that he is selling in his shop. But the best part is, if he offers it for free, people will not say no. Especially if they believe that stuff has the power to solve their problems.

So is it not about money? Well, yes and no. He has magic powers to know about his customers and offer them some solution. But he understands that he cannot make money out of it. Not in a straightforward way.

So what does Mr. Needful want? We would have found it out if Rick would not have intervened so callously with the antidote of the curse. But the show gives us some hints.

The President of Pluto is happy to keep fueling Plutonians' belief that Pluto is a planet. The Plutonians want to feel superior and the President can maintain his position as long as he can keep that mirage. He will go to any lengths including imprisoning his son to keep the facade going.

If you ask why the answer is simple. He wants to hold power over the people. Because as long as he has the power, he can do anything, making money is never very far. But he can do much more. He can influence the opinions of people to make money in any way he wants. Even if it leads to destitution for a section of society.

That is what Mr. Needful wants also. That is what most people who are not adding value, want. They know very well that what they provide does not solve a real problem. So need to create artificial problems that people believe in so that their offer looks lucrative.

But how?

The art of swapping (problems)

In the movie Phir Hera Pheri, A woman offers 3 rich guys a chance to double their money in 21 days, if they choose to invest in her funds. While two of them were busy celebrating their imaginary dollars, one curious guy, Shyam, asks the lady about the method with which they double the money so quickly. The obvious answer was:

"We invest our money in a foreign fund which doubles our money in 7 days. So we return the principle with interest in 21 days".

That answer made Shyam happy.

Shyam was an idiot. Don't be like Shyam.

The simple answer is - they offer an illusion of a solution. They do not solve the problem (because they can't). They just replace the problem with some other problem. Much like what Mr. Needful does.

But Shyam wanted some rationalization of the investment. Mr. Needful also knows that people need some rationalization for their trust in his powers. He needs to give them a demo. Hence, he flaunts his powers by taking their names and telling them about their hidden desires. And when customers confront him with the problems he has caused, he just points to their desires. He does not owe them anything because they have not paid anything.

Social Media does not solve the problem of staying in touch with your friends. It is not the answer to loneliness. It does not replace the effort you need to put in bonding with another human being. It just offers an illusion of doing so. It offers you knowledge about the avatars of each other and we are happy with that rationalization.

It is not useless. It helps people keep up with the latest information. It helps businesses reach out to audiences quickly. It helps people learn and grow. But a lot of components in it is to keep you there by targeting specific weaknesses of human beings. Like the desire for instant gratification. It makes promises which it cannot fulfill. It is mostly an illusion but there is no need for proof of value since you did not pay.

Stay Scientific

Customers did not question WHY Mr. Needful is offering these life-changing powers for free.

Jerry did not question WHY he is receiving a scientific prize when all he did was make a stupid statement.

Summer did not question WHY a man is employing an unskilled worker who wouldn't get a job anywhere else.

Only Rick questions WHY the store appeared out of nowhere, WHY everything is old and creepy, WHY someone will offer something for free. He is not a hack. He detects the evil; it was in the WHY.

We never question WHY all these amazing sounding tools are available to us for free.

I am not saying that everything free is a scam. There are genuine strategies that companies follow to gain market share. When companies have the scale through network effect, they find ways to monetize. But those companies are offering genuine solutions to real problems.

WHY would a company choose the path of monetization through privac, instead of other options? Perhaps the answer lies in the intent and morals on which it stands. We can only know the answer if we question WHY and connect the dots logically before trusting.


Anmol Mohan

I am just trying to make sense of this world. I am interested in the hardest puzzles like Consciousness, Humanity and Multiverse. Sharing my honest learning during this journey.