Tag Archives: Communication

“Privacy is theft”, a warning about invasive technology

Technology is anything invented after you are born - Alan Kay, computer scientist

If Alan Kay is right, I live in a time with a lot of technology. I am part of the last generation of high school students who wrote their own book reports, instead of copy pasting them from the internet. I am also part of the first generation that  communicate with close ones in other countries any moment of the day and anywhere. If needed, with a couple of swipes I can access all knowledge of the world from my toilet.

Am I living in a dystopia or a utopia? The jury is still out on that. But Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle provides some compelling evidence that we are on the wrong way. Over the Christmas holidays, I read his smart novel about a top-notch internet company in which the attentive reader may recognise a type of Google. The Circle has become the leading firm thanks to the creation of a single, and verified online identity – with the Orwellian name TruYou – that allows you to sign in everywhere. This single online identity is the end of password remainder emails and internet trolling.

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)The hero of the novel, Mae Holland, is extremely excited when landing a job on the Circle’s campus. She quickly spends her time filling out surveys, her mandatory social media activity, attending all the social gatherings, and occasionally do a bit of work. Responding surveys, whether it is from her own clients as part of the customer relations team, or on the question whether more or less vegan options should be served at lunch, becomes a key part of her daily tasks: her opinion counts. As a result, she almost has too little time to enjoy all the amazing services on campus, ranging from free and high quality healthcare to organic local meals and concerts from famous musicians. Positive and optimistic slogans entice the employees to be active and creative.

It turns a bit nastier when Mae is told to pay more attention to her social media presence. At the Circle, all performance is assessed. All experiences must be shared, and status updates, comments and likes all count towards her Participation Rank (PartiRank). Participation becomes a daily task: it takes multiple hours to rise in the rankings.

The novel is smartly constructed, and it would be a pity to reveal all the details. I’d rather encourage you to read the story itself. But the message is clear: starting with benevolent intentions – ending internet trolling and protecting children, for instance – technology companies get to a position where they gather more and more information about all of us.

It’s all for a good cause: to share wonderful moments with our loved ones. If I want to make a hike in the mountains, aren’t I selfish if I don’t publish the pictures online, so my mother can see them from home?  Everything must be known, claims the lead evangelist at the Circle. And that quickly turns into an Orwellian situation. If everything must be known, are people allowed to have any secrets? Is any degree of privacy still allowed? ‘Secrets are lies’, says the Circle’s leader. And one more: ‘privacy is theft’.

Eggers’ book is a timely warning. We already live in an age where large companies have a large influence on our lives, and where individual technologies control more of our behaviour than we should like. Smartphone users, it seems, check their device up to 150 times a day. The only way to prevent a Circle-like dystopia is to protect ourselves. To turn off our smartphones. To disconnect from time to time, and to spend time in nature or with friends. Technology only takes over as much of our life as we allow it.

Beyond GDP, a long road to travel

Almost fifty year since the famous speech by Robert F. Kennedy, and almost ten years after the start of a thorough debate on ‘beyond GDP’, it’s time to meet the unfilled promise.

On some occasions before, I have written blog posts to encourage EU policy makers and politicians to step up their ambitions and integrate ‘beyond GDP’ indicators in their policies. For instance, see posts on ‘Gross European Happiness‘ or ‘An EU Happiness Manifesto‘, and an essay I wrote for the Next Generation for Europe magazine NGE Magazine 1 (Chapter three, pdf).

And I must say, the topic is on the agenda. I recently had the fortune to attend a European Commission expert conference on ‘beyond GDP’. Noting the importance of the topic, the conference was opened by two outgoing Commissioners: Laszlo Andor, for Social Affairs, and Janez Potocznik, for Environment.

Winning the battle of measurement…

How to make the giant leap from theory to practice? Enrico Giovannini, a former Italian Minister and OECD Chief Statistician, has pushed the debate on GDP forwards in the recent decade. He asked whether those supporting the idea of beyond GDP have won or lost in the debates from the last years. His conclusion was that the ‘battle of measurement’ has been won. In comparison to ten years ago, national statistic offices do a lot more effort to measure what matters.

Routine measurements of social and environmental indicators allows us to get a broader understanding of quality of life than economic growth and inflation could give us. They are more and more interested in collecting and refining social figures on employment rates, NEET rates (people Not in Education, Employment or Training – a proxy for youth employment), and inequality-adjusted GDP growth. Environmental numbers like generated waste, emission of green house gasses and water use also gain more prominence. And new indices like the OECD Better Life Index treat all indicators equally.

OECD

Screenshot of the OECD Better Life Index website

… but the battle for policy must still be fought

There are two questions around this: do we measure enough? And do we do enough to exploit this massive amount of data and adapt our policies to it? When asking whether we won the battle of policy, the answer from Giovannini is simple – no. If you want to make simple policies from these crunched numbers, you have to make trade-offs. How much air pollution is an increase in GDP of 1% worth? How much fossil fuels can you burn to lift one thousand people out of poverty? And what, objectively, is well-being anyway? These are incredibly difficult questions to answer. Economic growth is a lot easier objective. There is no easy way out.

Can economic, environmental and social betterment go hand in hand? The Commission – via its stated objective of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth – thinks so. But MEP Philippe Lamberts doesn’t agree. He believes that in a finite planet, sustainable growth is an inherent paradox. From an environmental perspective, we may need degrowth; but at the same time, that has consequences on employment. And, higher growth is also associated with more money invested in environmental protection.

How do you cut this Gordian knot?

The quest for perfection limits action

Nobody can easily answer these complex these questions. But I can offer my own conclusions:

  1. A lot of laudable work is being done by statisticians and policymakers, especially in social and environmental departments. With a lot of conviction and passion, they had managed to put the issue on the agenda. But they need to get economists more involved in these debate to get more leverage. It was telling that very few participants were trained economists.
  2. Call me a pessimist, but my feeling is that the political momentum behind the beyond GDP drive is fading. There are generic references to the agenda, but the policy efforts needs to be stepped up. In my view, policymakers need to be more courageous and bring their policies to main stream politics. That requires broad political campaigning and communication, as the new economics foundation also writes (pdf). Reports don’t change reality. Action does.
  3. Finally, maybe it is a quest for perfection that is limiting action. A perfect measurement of well-being does not exist. If you group indicators together in one figure – say well-being is ’42′ – you can make little sense of it. Similarly, a ‘dashboard’ with eleven different figure as in the OECD Better Life Index can be difficult to apply. But in this case, it appears the perfect is the enemy of good. GDP also has been refined often. It’s better to refine measures and policies of well-being on the way than to never start the journey.

Beyond GDP: a long road to travel, but one that is worthy to go.