Saturday 29 June 2013

Prism: The Human right to Anticipation

The Prism scandal has been portrayed as being about information. Yet it is quite clear that the menace is not 'information' itself (whatever that is!), but the unequal capacity of corporations and governments to anticipate what each of us is likely to do next. When institutions and corporations know our next move before we do then we have a fundamental problem with democracy and freedom. The right to self-expression and free will is a right to be different, to be transformative, to do our part to shape the world we live in - and to usurp power which overstretches its mandate.

Information is now much like banking. The banks invest our money organising it ways which are not available to any individual, extracting profits which are unrealisable by any individual, but only giving the customer back a tiny fraction of the rewards they have reaped: just enough to encourage the customer to keep placing their money in the bank. Google or Twitter receive a tiny piece of information from each of us. To us, that information may simply be an inconsequential message. But Google and the rest have ways of organising it which are not available to any of us, and extract from their organisation powerful properties of anticipation  which they can then sell to those organisations willing to buy their services. Information is transformed into money by way of anticipation.

Any individual is at the mercy of this. Whilst some might eschew online engagement for fear of these forces (rightly), increasingly online engagement through the internet corporations has become as essential for professional development and advancement as education. Indeed, if the bleatings of the Web2.0 mafia are to be believed, it is more important than education (but they are a naive mafia!). The more we commit ourselves to the services of internet corporations, the more the world changes to enforce engagement. Just as the car has become a machine for covering the planet in tarmac, so the internet is a machine for turning us all into 'information workers'.

But we have no concept of the freedom of information workers. We don't have a concept of information. But we can now see the asymmetry of anticipation between the giant internet corporations, governments and the people who are meant to be the ones who vote for governments. The fact that we don't vote for internet corporations must now be a massive concern.

Part of the problem is that few understand the power that can be harvested from Google accounts, Facebook, etc. The pattern matching algorithms are so sophisticated previously unknown commonalities in our psychology and biology can be revealed. Ironically, these algorithms emerged through the massive data challenge of genetic sequencing. But when we 'sequence' ourselves, we need to understand what is being exposed, and the power of revealing it.

I think the asymmetry will need to be addressed. Eventually the political scandal will be apparent to everyone. But also there is no way back. The technologies are there now. But maybe the next wave of social and technical transformation will not be about individuals submitting information, but individuals having their own means of technologically-enhanced anticipation. But in that situation, the locus of meaning, of being human and of freedom will become ever more important.


Scott said...

I recently read another interesting example of information inequality, which is the ability to pay a premium on timing of information so you get to act on it marginally before others, in many cases gaining greatest benefit:

Mark Johnson said...

It's all a bit like the plot behind Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale" - the soldier sells his violin to the devil in exchange for a "book of numbers" - stock prices of the future. Pretty good for 1919! There's a link between the ability to anticipate and the ability to manage risk - which is interesting.