måndag 23 februari 2015

Are the digital developments a golden straitjacket?

I was invited to, and participated in a round-table discussion on the topic "Are the digital developments a golden straitjacket?" last week. That was neither research nor education but rather "the third task" - science outreach - that researchers are supposed to do, but that is oftentimes not prioritised particularly high.

The invitation came from Unibet Norden, an online gambling company, but the roundtable mediator, who also as far as I know did most of the work of practically organising the event was business analyst Alexander Crawford. He has been a research director and project director at the Tällberg Foundation and is now connected to the think tank Global utmaning ("Global challenge").

Out of the 10 participants, I was the only pure-bread academic (e.g. having a research background and representing a university). The other nine participants were:

- Andreas Quensel, Head of Business Intelligence, Expressen
- Ann-Marie Fransson, vvd Almega/Digitaliseringskommisionen [The Committee for Digitization]
Brit Stakston, Media strategist
- Göran af Klercker, Founder, Embzy
- Håkan Jerner, Head of marketing, Unibet Norden
- Kristina Alvendal, CEO, Airport City Stockholm
- Mats Henricson, Chairman, Svenska Bitcoinföreningen [Swedish Bitcoin Association]
- Suzanne Sandler, CEO StyrelseAkademien [The Swedish Academy of Board Directors]

The round-table discussion was "sold" with the perhaps slightly hyperbolic question (above), but was later followed-up and presented as follows: "we would like to hear your perspective on how digitisation affects business, politics and society, and what different actors can and should do to support positive aspects of such a shift and counteract negative aspects".

We agreed to use the Chatham house rules for the event. That is, it's ok to refer to anything that was said, but not to refer to who said it. That's a good rule for reporting about discussions on controversial issues. I don't think we discussed particularly controversial issues, but I will anyway refrain from attributing positions to specific speakers - with the exception of what I said myself. This is furthermore not a protocol or a synthesis of what was said, but rather some of my personal impressions, take-home notes and reflections based on the discussion.

We started off with a long discussion about issues of freedom and control, integrity and censorship, darknets and cryptography. What is an intelligent position to have on what should, or should not be controlled on the Internet? On the one had the usual boogie men like child pornography and the up-and-coming issue of IS recruitment, and, on the other hand the individual's right to a private life and a safe zone also on the Internet. The discussion covered technical means (filters etc.), social means ("we have to talk more with our children and youths about this") and the intersection between technical and social means (teaching and learning "digital competencies/literacies"). This also lead to discussions about filter bubbles and the polarisation of society. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by such issues. One question is if/how we can push developments in the right direction. A more fundamental question though is "what is the right direction?". There are always tradeoffs and it's very easy to get lost in a maze of choices and their incalculable consequences.

It is at times also easy to feel powerless. The Copenhagen shootings were only a few days behind us when we met for the roundtable discussions, but it had taken less than a day for Swedish rapper Dani M to float the "theory" that the shootings were a "black flag" operation, i.e. a covert operation designed to deceive and appear as though it was being carried out by others than those who actually planned and executed them (Wikipedia). The question then is, how can you banish stupidity and nut cases that spin their own web of conspiracy theories either through technical means, social means or by way of teaching digital competencies? That's a tough nut to crack to say the least...

Another discussions concerned the role of media. The more information that circulates in society, the more we need the media as a filter. But media (especially newspapers) are currently among the losers of the digitalisation process - loosing their advertising revenue to Google and Facebook. Also, will we really have human editors in the future or will the editing function of the future be performed by algorithms that customises the content and adds a suitable proportion of serendipitous content to your daily digital information diet?

One person said that the more you you know about the Internet (and social media, big data, surveillance etc.), the less you are on Facebook, and, the less you know about those same entities, the more of a looser you are. This comment directly refers back to invitation which asked us to consider "what different actors can and should do to support positive aspects of such a shift and counteract negative aspects". I had thought about that question beforehand and thought it was a little bit too simplistic. There are always two sides of the coin and any technology will have its winners and its losers. While I love the Internet as much as the next person, I proposed that I, as a university teacher, might be one of the losers since researchers and university teachers have lost their roles as the gatekeepers of knowledge. Nowadays any yokel can spend an hour reading up on something in Wikipedia and think they are an expert on the topic. That of course doesn't make them into experts in my eyes, but what if enough people (at a meeting or a cocktail party) think they are? That would then erode my status and my position in society (if it hasn't already). Even though the Internet is great for a large number of purposes, I have a hard time believing the Internet or any other technology can make us all into winners to the exact same extent. Transparency sounds nice, but will everyone really have the same information, the same possibilities of interpreting the information at hand and of drawing relevant conclusions from the information and the same say? Perhaps transparency will lead to even greater information asymmetries since not everybody has a supercomputer in their cellar (to make sense of all the nominally transparent data)... so we're back to thinking about winners and losers again In the words of Neil Postman, "almost nothing happens to the losers that they need, which is why they are losers".

On a different track, all the roundtable participants were of course winners. We all have the opportunity to join a round-table discussion on a weekday (between 8-10) either because we have sympathetic employers or because we can make discretionary decisions about how to use our time. We can "in the line of duty" choose to spend two hours discussing and networking with others (or even going away on a sabbatical for six months). This just has to be a huge factor dividing employees (bus drivers, nurses, warehouse workers) from employees (CEOs, entrepreneurs, researchers). Some people have to be at certain places at certain times and they are surveilled - supervised, watched and measured at the job. They don't have the opportunity to widen their networks through their everyday activities - which other, privileged people can do. That's just a short thought in regards to who the winners and who the losers are in the current order of things.

I was really excited about having a chance to chat with the chairman of the Swedish Bitcoin Association. It's hard to not have hear about Bitcoin, but I've missed out on what there is in the concept that creates intensive buy-in among many people. I guess there must be a vision of a better society at the end of the Bitcoin tunnel, but I have had a hard time understanding what is so great about it. I now know a tiny bit more, but for all the good (simplicity, speed, reduced fees), there are also other potentially negative aspects of cryptocurrencies and my imagination still cannot fathom the full greatness of Bitcoin:
- Statement: Bitcoin makes micropayments possible. Question: What exactly are we currently missing out on that would flourish with Bitcoin micropayments?
- Statement: Money will be harder to control and transaction costs will disappear with Bitcoin. Question: What will the effects on taxation (and banks) be? How will the welfare state be supported in such a future?
- Statement: Bitcoin can guarantee total anonymity. Question: Won't it primarily be the "bad guys" who will be ecstatic about this? Or, will it liberate us all from... something? Tyranny?

The last question led to a discussion (again) about trust, reputation and transparency and there is apparently a concept called "proof of burn" where you basically "burn" Bitcoins to prove that you are trustworthy, invested and can be counted on. My thoughts when I heard about it went to the Potlatch - an North American Indian feast where you want to dominate others by throwing a great party and showing how much you can give away (including throwing valuables straight into the sea).

Also, I asked a question about sustainability and Bitcoin. Isn't silly to mine coal (mountaintop removal) to generate electricity to mine Bitcoin? We now have specialised computers working 24/7 burning electricity in order to create Bitcoins when they could be on stand-by or turned off to save energy.  So from a sustainability point of view, is Bitcoin really what the planet needs right now? Apparently some really smart people are working on alternatives to using-electricity-to-mine-Bitcoin and the place to look is apparently in discussions about "proof of work" and "proof of stake" which was interesting and valuable information for me that I will look in to.

I would guess that micropayments could potentially stop newspapers from bleeding to death. Or perhaps people would even be willing to pay 1/10 SEK to read a blog post here? But I don't go through my current life feeling remorseful about all the things that would be possible should micropayments be with us today (or tomorrow). I guess my imagination is still limited here and I still needed to have a longer chat in order to understand the greatness of Bitcoin.

Since Facebook watches every interaction of ours and never forgets anything, I suggested that I from now will missepell one word in each sentence that I write on Facebook so as to decrease the value of the data I leave behind. People (and Facebook) would think that I'm really stupid, but that only goes to show them not appreciating how smart I really am. It was a perfect for all of 10 seconds until another participant at the meeting commented that Facebook will analyse my missspellings and figure out that I'm only pretending - which only goes to show that you really can't win against almighty Facebook (or Google).

We all agreed on the fact that time has sped up due to the Internet and social media. Where you had potentially embarrassing pictures that were available forever in social media we not have Snapchat. Where we once had "Future shock" we not have "Present shock: When everything happens now". By writing this (long) blog post, I have thus just proved what a old fogey I am and you have just showed the same by reading this text to the very end.

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