Very unusually, for me, I’ve completely re-written this post over the course of the week. At the beginning of the week I was feeling more than a little gloomy about the state of the world – primarily relating to politics, climate change and data privacy issues – but I’m gradually starting to feel more optimistic.
Yes, every single day we see more news related to US and UK politics, but I’m now genuinely expecting some of the craziness to work its way through during the course of this year.
The climate is still a serious worry and will be for decades to come. That said, last Friday our eldest son participated in a school strike inspired by the amazing Greta Thunberg: this generation is starting to take ownership of the situation humanity has built for itself over the last decades. Their action is absolutely critical to changing corporate (and individual) attitudes regarding our abuse of the climate.
During the weekend – just prior to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a good time to reflect on the state of civil liberties around the world – I had a few reasons to be both concerned and yet optimistic about the direction we’re heading in with regards to data privacy.
— TIME (@TIME) January 17, 2019
It started with Roger McNamee’s TIME article, which got me thinking, once again, about the Cambridge Analytica disclosures of a year ago. Mr. NcNamee has written a book highlighting the concerns he has about his former mentee and the direction Facebook has taken in recent years.
One of his suggestions is to break Facebook up, as it’s become too powerful.
Hot on this article’s heels, however, I read a couple of articles in The New York Times and The Guardian detailing work by Shoshana Zuboff – who also has a book out on the subject – which argues that this is actually the wrong thing to do. Dr. Zuboff’s book is about “Surveillance Capitalism”, which is a way bigger issue than the tactics used during the US election and UK’s EU referendum of 2016. This is about the next phase of capitalism, wherein companies – such as Facebook, although the real innovator in this space was clearly Google – go down the path of gathering and inferring such an insane amount of data about everyone (whether they actively use their systems or not) that the power this gives a few large companies is beyond anything else we’ve seen.
Why not break them up, then? Because that “will produce smaller surveillance capitalist firms and open the field for more surveillance capitalist competitors”. Oh crap.
Surveillance capitalism – it is argued, and I have trouble contradicting this – has become “the default model for capital accumulation in Silicon Valley”. And…
By now it’s no longer restricted to individual companies or even to the internet sector. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy.
Which means that someone working in the IoT space (which I consider myself to be, for at least half my time) needs to think seriously about these issues. In my day job we’re more focused on collecting data to help things that are designed (buildings, factories, bridges) become more efficient – and eventually be re-designed generatively based on the data that’s collected – but of course there’s scope for data to be collected that people aren’t comfortable with. Hence us pushing forward with the ability to anonymise data about people’s movements – boiling it down to 3D skeleton data – as they cross the MX3D bridge in its eventual location in Amsterdam’s red-light district.
There’s obviously the potential for platform companies such as Autodesk to start deriving significant value – and market power – from customers’ data: the overall aim of surveillance capitalism. I don’t believe this to be inevitable, however, and that’s one of the points made by Dr. Zuboff: surveillance capitalism is “a human invention, not a technological inevitability”. Serving the B2B space – providing software technology to companies, who are used to paying for products and services – will probably provide some buffer from the market pressures to head down this path, now that the genie is out of the proverbial bottle. Beyond that it’ll be up to companies to ensure they deal with customer data legally and ethically, and to comply with whatever regulation gets introduced to curb abuse. GDPR was a great start, on that front – I’m getting to appreciate it more as time goes on – but I do believe we need to go further.
This week’s World Economic Forum in Davos is – perhaps surprisingly – one of the main reasons I’ve started to feel more up-beat during the course of the week. This morning’s interview of Satya Nadella of Microsoft by the WEF’s founder, Professor Klaus Schwab, was particularly inspiring: it really gave me hope that large companies can take an ethical approach as we move into an increasingly digital world.
How do you feel about the state of the world, now that 2019 has started to reveal itself to us?