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Meet the original Big Data, TED Talk, Thought Shower Futurist

Reg man talks digital economy, creeping existential unease

Pie chart inventor and scoundrel William Playfair could easily take his place at a cereal bar in Shoreditch
Pie chart inventor and scoundrel William Playfair could easily take his place at a cereal bar in Shoreditch

Andrew at Large At the Battle of Ideas Festival at the Barbican last year, Claire Fox chaired a panel titled: “Is Technology Limiting Our Humanity?”, and invited me to take part. Panelists could give a seven-minute introduction.

It’s now online as a video and podcast.

Two avenues looked promising, and today I will give you an excerpt from the second. In the first, I talked about the fear of robots coming for your job. But what passes for a “digital economy” also requires humans to make sacrifices, so the machines work properly - and people are increasingly chafing against this. Quite justifiably, I think.

This what I had to say about that. It isn’t too long - so have a read and sound off.

"One of the most useful characters to me in writing about this (the digital economy) is a man called William Playfair, a character influential at the end of the 18th Century. It was a time of turmoil, technological disruption, class upheaval, and fear of revolution. He spotted a gap in public life. He compiled great databases, including a nine volume inventory of Scotland, which were inventories of things. 200 years ago, he was exploring Big Data.

But Playfair was also an embezzler and a blackmailer, with some unscrupulous data-gathering methods. He would kidnap farmers until they told him how many sheep they had. Today he’s remembered as the father of data visualisation. He was the first to use the pie chart, the line chart, the bar chart.

We still use them all today.

Now I owe my knowledge of Playfair to a history of data viz that’s coming out with Bloomsbury by Ted Byfield (@tbfld). Byfield writes that often in times of historical uncertainty there's what he calls a “white flight”, an effort

"to create imaginary spaces into which observers can flee from anxieties about their cultural and historical position" 

I’d suggest we’re in a similar period of upheaval now.

I find Playfair was a very very modern character.

Playfair stressed the confusion of the moment, its historical discontinuity, and advanced himself as a guru with new methods who was able to make sense of it. Playfair would fit right in at Shoreditch tech meetups, web summits and "Future of Technology" brainstorms, or Cabinet Office Thought Showers.

He called his graphics "The Geometry of Finance". What a perfect title for TED Talk! I can see a business bestseller right there.

Times of change create an opportunity for Playfairs. Look around us. We have a “fluid freelance economy”. A less polite way of saying it is that there’s no shortage of blaggers and chancers and bullshitters. We’re overrun with "thinkfluencers". This skews the debate away from reality towards the speculative and fanciful.

But I want to purse this theme of “flight”, and what it can tell us.

Now much of the discourse around humans and technology is utopian fantasies, while some are dystopian. Both are examples of what I call – for want of a better phrase - displacement anxiety. It’s an anxiety about things that aren't really a problem, or the most pressing problem, as a way of avoiding things that are. Displacement anxiety requires fantasies, perhaps even conspiracies, but what do these tell us? What are we running away from?

The current “digital economy” looks very tired - there are no new ideas, and it's cannibalising itself. It seems like we're between eras.

The first era of internet development was characterised by open technologies, and very rapid proliferation of technology. The second was closed platforms, functionality became private, developed and owned by giant plantations, or platforms. Google and Facebook are examples. These platforms set both the terms of trade, and relationships. The platforms sought to undermine every legal right the individual could assert – ownership of our own stuff, our privacy, our reputation - because the platforms found following norms or laws inconvenient.

Power has really been seized from the individual in this era. This is satirized in Dave Eggers' book The Circle – where any private space, or any assertion of property rights over digital stuff, is considered a violation of the collective.

“Privacy is Theft”

“Sharing is Caring”

The greatest achievement of Silicon Valley, perhaps, is to get people to campaign against their own interests – to celebrate when their rights are seized or nullified. This is done under the banner of internet freedom:

“Don’t break the internet. It stays the way we want it to stay.”

It takes an genius to convince internet users that their own property rights, their copyright, is a bad thing, and even to campaign to weaken their own rights!

So the winners of this Second Era were the beneficiaries of two things, above all else. Firstly, they benefited from loopholes in laws devised in the First Era, which created huge incentives for unethical behaviour. Secondly, from the decision of VCs twenty years ago to aggregate value on the server, to adopt a “plantation model” of aggregation, rather than a model which would innovate for decentralized spontaneous networks, or respect the individual. News and cultural industries bear plenty of responsibility for their fate, but they’ve suffered those VC choices, and those laws.

The digital economy today is also riddled with fraud.  (“A criminal disposition,” Playfair’s Victorian biographer’s noted, “is highly advantageous.”)

I can see initiatives that delineate a Third era: we will begin to assert and demand ownership, property-ish rights, and reassert the autonomy of the individual. Examples include Europe’s development of its own infrastructure, Schrems vs Facebook, and development of open tools to assert property rights, such our own Copyright Hub projects. Many of the Hub’s projects are about sharing and public use – in many cases free public use of material – but the power now lies with the individual.

But these developments are barely here yet. It isn't clear to us shape the future will take, and the plantations that got very rich in the second era have got comfortable, and don’t like change, and are sure to fight it.

As a writer, I find the hardest part of my job meeting politicians, policy makers, is to explain that things today are temporary, there's enormous continual churn of innovation, and contestation underneath; nothing is set in stone. But to avoid addressing problems of today, or perhaps simply because they’re fearful of the consequences of challenging Google, they don’t. Instead, they trust the people who run the plantations to set the terms of debate. Because they know best."

Comments welcome.

Link to part one

Hear the full podcast here or watch the video on the session page. ®

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