Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Great Disappointment

America's enemies (and even some friends) refer to the United States as The Great Satan. Following this week's revelations about PRISM I find myself thinking of America as The Great Disappointment. Why? Because never before has a free people relinquished so much freedom so quickly, and so easily. Or as Dale Price put it:

"The good news? It's getting increasingly hard for anyone to hate us for our freedoms."

I remember a conversation with a devout Stalinist, shortly after the Berlin Wall had fallen, lamenting that the invention of the personal computer came too late for the Soviet Union. If only they had had better computing power then the socialist economy could have been made to work without the rationing and shortages... I'm sure there are former members of the Stasi who only wish they'd had PRISM back in the day. As the movie 'Lives of Others' reminds us, spying used to be a labour intensive business: one spy, one spied-upon. Now, thanks to Moore's Law, the NSA can collect 97 billion pieces of intelligence in just one month.

We should beware of geeks bearing gifts. Edward Luce observes that:

"One of the geekocracy’s main characteristics is a serene faith in its own good motives."

Motives lacerated by Evgeny Morozov in his review of a book by Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. As Morozov sees it:
The goal of books such as this one is not to predict but to reassure—to show the commoners, who are unable on their own to develop any deep understanding of what awaits them, that the tech-savvy elites are sagaciously in control. Thus, the great reassurers Schmidt and Cohen have no problem acknowledging the many downsides of the “new digital age”—without such downsides to mitigate, who would need these trusted guardians of the public welfare? So, yes, the Internet is both “a source for tremendous good and potentially dreadful evil”—but we should be glad that the right people are in charge. Uncertainty? It’s inevitable, but manageable. “The answer is not predetermined”—a necessary disclaimer in a book of futurology—and “the future will be shaped by how states, citizens, companies and institutions handle their new responsibilities.” If this fails to reassure, the authors announce that “most of all, this is a book about the importance of a guiding human hand in the new digital age.” The “guiding hand” in question will, in all likelihood, be corporate and wear French cuffs.
If PRISM and the age of Total Information Awareness is a consequence of IT economics, then maybe we need to look again at the economics? At one level, we are witnessing a digital tragedy of the commons. Only this time it is national governments who are under-mining our collective welfare through their selfish acts. If enclosure solved the problem of overgrazing back in the 18th century, then perhaps something similar is required now?

The answer is the same: replace 'collective' ownership with private ownership. Give every citizen ownership of their own data. All of it. It's already got a name: The Intention Economy.

This is an opportunity for Ireland: to become a global 'trust hub', pioneering data privacy, data ownership and new data sharing models that avert the digital tragedy of the commons. Come to think of it, we've no other choice if we want to hold on to the little freedom we have left...


  1. Hi Gerard.

    ... One of the great visionary of the IT revolution... See where his vision tended?

    In addition, just spotted you wrote, "...If enclosure solved the problem of overgrazing back in the 18th century, then perhaps something similar is required now?..."

    I never saw it put like that before! Surely the intent of the enclosures was to turn ARABLE land into pasture for sheep, paving the way for the increasing mechanisation of the cotton industry and the new factories and their need for more raw wool and labour?

    Noting as well the fact that those who were thrown off the land during the enclosures by these industrial private interests were absolutely pauperised. They lost their means of livelihood - they lost the level of subsistence they previously had that they could fall back on when needed. They lost their little bit of land, with a garden plot growing vegetables, a few geese wandering around, and a cow or an ass on the commons. It used be that if their income dried up for a while, they had something to fall back on.

    You think something similar is needed? A mobile workforce totally (and utterly) dependent on the wages offered by business?

    Maybe we've gone far enough down that road?!

  2. Here's another article on Stafford Beer and his project Cybersyn.

    This bit might interest you, Gerard. "In the potting shed of a house called Firkins, a teenager named Simon Beer, using bits of radios and pieces of pink and green cardboard, built a series of electrical meters FOR MEASURING PUBLIC OPINION. His concept - users of his meters would turn a dial to indicate how happy or unhappy they were with any political proposal - was strange and ambitious enough. And it worked..."


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