Complicity in the Information Age?
Life is full of contradictions, and we are all big bags of wind and cognitive dissonance. Okay, that’s not fair, I can’t speak for everyone: I am a big bag of wind and cognitive dissonance, and the rest of you can make your own minds up.
Sometimes our^H^H^Hmy contradictory behaviours are very clear, to the point of hypocrisy: coffee shops cover several favourites of mine, such as the way that we carefully get our cards stamped even having just paid what must be marked up at ten times its material cost; we stand in line for an astonishing amount of time to watch someone froth some milk; and then there’s the callously hipster-ised decor against the environmental impact of coffee cups. But use coffee shops we do, or I know I do.
And don’t start me off about flexatarianism. But yes, behavioural economics — a.k.a. “working out what we are actually going to do, as opposed to what we think we should or would do” — is a fascinating area.
Looking back, the bulk of this newsletter over the past year or so has been focused on the contradictions, imbalances and accepted behaviours of how we use technology in the corporate world. It’s a two-edged sword, it’s influenced by things we all understand but only discuss down the pub, and so on. That’s fine, as far as it goes, and I thank every one of you who reads it and offers the occasional piece of feedback.
Meanwhile, however, technology is having a pretty big impact on society as a whole. It’s not hard to argue that it social media has changed the nature of democracy; the algorithmic nature of marketing sails close to the wind; whole new forms of addiction, fraud and other ills have emerged which could not exist without technology to support them.
The overall position is that technology is ‘just’ a tool, which delivers more benefit than it costs. I often use the example of the iron age, which enabled the creation of both plough shares and swords: would we rather not have either, even if we could have avoided our own ability to discover the smelting process? Thinking even more deeply, would we rather not be innovative at all?
These latter questions are perhaps the most fundamental. We can’t stop progress, one might say; but more than that, we can’t stop the main cause of progress: human inventiveness. What we can do is recognise the ramifications of applying consequent innovations into a chaotic, complex and already-corrupt global culture. To do so thinking it’ll all be alright is more than naive, it is foolhardy. Yet foolhardy we are, living the digital dream even as we watch its worst consequences play out.
I have long said that GDPR is a law two decades behind its time, solving the problems of yesteryear. Don’t get me wrong, the fact we now have corporations being held to account for how they deal with our data is a good thing. But it is not the only area of technological impact. Lawmaking is incredibly slow, meaning that an obviously wrong act such as ‘upskirting’ is treated as a new piece of legislation, taking a legal cycle to implement rather than it being framed as a broader breach of privacy.
The result is an opportunity cost, as we focus on individual situations rather than looking at, and dealing with technology’s broader cultural impact. This goes beyond governance by design (as advocated by Smart Shift): I believe we lack what might be perceived as a collective conscience, or ethical framework, to which we our particular society can align, and from which governance frameworks can emerge. Contradictions and cognitive dissonances such as the illiberalism of trolling or pubic shaming, for which no legislation currently exists, should be more than the subjects of journalistic and pub-related debate.
And indeed, we shouldn’t let our natural tendencies towards cognitive dissonance to shy away from what has already unfolded. Or at least, I shouldn’t — I can’t speak for anyone else. I’m telling you the plot but at the end of Smart Shift I advocated for a declaration of virtual rights, which set out what individuals can expect from the information age (I was not the first to do so, though I did get in before Tim Berners-Lee). If Western society is to continue to function, we can, and should, and need to go further than that, to understand our virtual responsibilities, what is acceptable and what is not, and then align to such principles in our lawmaking. I remain optimistic that we can do so, but to succeed, we first have to start.
Not sure what comes next from me, other than a will and a focus. A genuine thanks for reading, watch this space.
Also published on Medium.