Servant or Master? What Will be our Relationship With a Digital Economy

Woman at table using smartphone and writing in notebook

The impact of digitalisation and automation will be increasingly profound. Enthusiasts talk in terms of technology setting us free, but I understand the worries of those who reckon we will be subservient rather than superior.

This is not just because of the impact on employment – in terms of numbers and quality of work. It is also because the data that is collected compromises privacy and can be processed in a way that hurts us.

Surrounding the launch of an important Institute for Government report on how the UK “does digital” was a self-evident truth that data and digitalisation are Good Things. Yet citizens’ data is special.  It’s not like a store loyalty card or online music channels, where as customers we choose to consent to have items proposed to us on the basis of past purchases and other data.

It is not even the same as the social media channels ProPublica has recently exposed as using  racial  profiling  to maximise advertising revenue (although  those in the  trade  will tell you  that has been going on  for decades).  There is still the crucial ingredient of consent.

But what consent can citizens give that justifies the “deep mine of big data” to identify repeated use of specific words or phrases to use as the basis for decisions about individuals or services?

We are close now to Snowden territory – the implied consent that citizens give to the state to keep them safe in whatever way the state thinks is appropriate or necessary. Or perhaps it is a Hobson’s Choice of the citizen having to give consent in order to receive services that they need as oppose to  simply  desire, as is the case  with many DWP payments.

So I worry when digital experts talk gleefully about ripping down barriers and creating a brave new world. I get their frustration.  I admire their enthusiasm, but my gift to them is a certain book by Aldous Huxley that they need to read sooner rather than later.

And to the Cabinet Office (interestingly not the Treasury) where the Government Digital Service is housed?  Good luck in keeping the £450m four year settlement awarded in last year’s autumn budget statement.  But beware becoming one of the silos that cause you such trouble elsewhere.

But we should end on a positive: We have bright, clever, people who want to work for the public good and who aren’t afraid to speak candidly about how they think that can be done better. At least there is a chance of better things happening.

 This piece also appears in The Huffington Post

This is the first of two articles on our relationship with  a digital economy. Part 2 appears here 

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