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Technology, Privacy and Innovation in 2014

Type: Think PiecesWritten by Charlotte Bowyer | Tuesday 28 January 2014

Prediction lists for the coming year are always revealing, though perhaps more of the current public mood than the future. A write-up of the tech trends for 2014 by Fast Company's design blog is hardly controversial, but what is interesting is how the areas they’ve chosen highlight the existence of two wider and seemingly divergent technological trends. This apparent conflict in the way technology is heading is far from problematic. On the contrary, it shows our success in adapting and experimenting with new ideas and in response to shifts in the social and political context, without the need for any central guidance.

One thing clear from Fast Company's list is that 2014 will bring a continued increase in the volume and depth of the personal data we create. Things like Google Glass, the ‘quantified self’, hyperpersonalised online experiences and the interconnectivity of the Internet of Things all create new reasons and mechanisms for data capture. This in turn increases the value of our data to ourselves, the companies with access to it and, in some situations, the state.

However, the article also predicts that 2014 will see increasing concerns over cyber-privacy and a movement towards greater digital anonymity. Users will increasingly chose to control their own data and how this is profited from, whilst we will begin to discover the joy of ‘disconnecting’ from the digital world and see the creation of intentional blackspots.

The fact that we seem to be embracing deeper technological integration yet simultaneously finding ways to mitigate and avoid its consequences is certainly interesting. Does this show that we’ve raced forward too fast and are trying to claw back a space we’re realising we’ve lost? It’s perhaps possible that this is the case, but far from giving us cause for concern the two-track path we’re seeing shows the ability of consumers and the tech sector to adapt over time, and in turn gives some hints on the optimal tech policy.

Reservations about an increasingly digitized and tech-heavy world are common, be it concerns over ‘hyper-stimulation’, the aggressive monetization of our digital footprint or wide-scale data collection and its abuse by unscrupulous firms and governments. Concerns often partner with conservatism; a desire to slow down the pace of technological rollout and impose prior restrictions on how things may be used. More often then not, government regulations and restrictions are cited as the way to hold a check on technology and keep us safe.

For example, Google's announcement to purchase the home thermostat company Nest was met with calls for a "much-needed conversation about data privacy and security for the internet of things". However, despite the fact this conversation hasn’t actually taken place yet, the same article expresses dismay and concern that the US government has been reluctant to legislate in this fledgling area. 

Clearly, security breaches and the abuse of sensitive information are unwanted, and the more data collected the larger a slip-up could be. However, as Adam Thierer points out “conjectural fears and hypothetical harms should not drive regulation”.

Even when a problem can be identified, it’s unlikely that a committee of concerned yet under-informed policy makers are best placed to deal with it. A case in point is the EU’s Privacy Directive, the progress of which has been continually stalled by conflicting interests and general confusion. Moreover the pace of government action often runs way behind business and societal developments, and policies forged to address a pressing issue today may be redundant in five years’ time.

Worse still, restrictions dampen innovation and risk choking off the next big breakthrough – clearly advances are less likely to come about if we can’t use our resources creatively. This is particularly true in fast-moving and dynamic technology sectors. It’s hard to imagine the success of the internet if companies and experiments had been subject to governmental approval and top-down control.

Ultimately, however, we should be reluctant to adopt state-imposed ‘solutions’ to technological problems is because the market is actually incredibly good at dealing with these issues itself.

This is exactly what the two sides to 2014’s tech trends show. 2013 gave us reasons to be more wary about what we give away about ourselves & put online – and developers have taken note. If we feel at the mercy of data-sucking giants we can begin to avoid them. As the public tires of Facebook, alternative social networks centred upon privacy and control continue to emerge. Hate search engines knowing what you’re looking for? Try out DuckDuckGo . Want greater control over your data? Look out for indiePhone and OS. This new wave of open-source and privacy-conscious technologies is marked by an increasingly sleek user experience as it moves out of the realm of geeks and into the mainstream.

Of course, not everybody will care about these things, and neither should they have to. The beauty of a world where experimentation is encouraged is that people can pick and choose what things (anonymity, relevant ads, seamlessly connected devices and so forth) are important to them, and make their tech usage decisions accordingly. In contrast, government restrictions impose a cost on the whole of society and assume that we hold the same preferences and level of risk aversion. When faced with new dimensions to questions like ‘How should companies use my data?’ and ‘Is it wise to let technology to do x?’, we’re more likely to find answers we’re happy with through personal experimentation and adaption than taking the word of interest groups and politicians.

We might get things wrong along the way and maybe even double-back on ourselves, but its clear that so long as we continue to innovate, we’re likely to solve our own problems and satisfy a range of preferences.

Image source: XKCD Comics 

Internet Freedom: A free market digital manifesto

Type: ReportsWritten by Dominique Lazanski | Thursday 21 February 2013

In this report, Dominique Lazanski calls on the government to commit to a 'Digital Freedom Charter' ahead of the Communications Bill. The report argues that the Internet is currently under threat from an increasing regulatory burden and that we need a charter committed to now in the UK to set out principles to ensure competition, innovation and growth in and around digital communications and the Internet. 

Conspiracy theories: Back and to the Left?

Type: Think PiecesWritten by Chris Snowdon | Tuesday 04 September 2012

Are conspiracy theories a hallmark of the right? Or, asks Chris Snowdon, do th really big conspiracy theories go hand in hand with a grandiose statism?


These Olympic Games are nothing to be proud of

Type: Think PiecesWritten by Lawsmith | Friday 27 July 2012

The London 2012 Olympic Games have been a triumph of wastefulness, nannying government, corporatism, deceit and incompetence. Our writer Lawsmith asks, how could our political class have gotten it so wrong?


Parent-led Protection: Market-based Solutions to Child Protection

Type: ReportsWritten by Dominique Lazanski | Tuesday 03 July 2012

Politicians claim that a single government block is needed to safeguard children online. However, as Dominique Lazanski argues, this ignores the wide range of market-based solutions that already exist.


In praise of consumerism

Type: Think PiecesWritten by Whig | Friday 22 June 2012

Should "consumerism" be a term of abuse? No, argues our blogger Whig — it is exactly what we should be striving for.


LulzSec and the open society

Type: Think PiecesWritten by Preston Byrne | Wednesday 13 July 2011

Subversion has been subverted, says PJ Byrne. Mass media gives us a sanitized and dumbed-down mélange of culture. LulzSec was so popular precisely because it lacked the solemn pompousness of most "subversives", and it was beholden to nobody. What matters is not our bank balance but our internal liberty to think and act freely.

Global Player or Subsidy Junkie? Decision time for the BBC

Type: ReportsWritten by David Graham | Thursday 29 July 2010

This report, by media expert and former BBC producer David Graham, argues that the TV Licence Fee should be abolished, and that the BBC should instead become a subscription service. The report makes a number of points against the Licence Fee, but also makes a more positive case for reform, suggesting that shifting to a voluntary subscription model would encourage the BBC to compete with the big US studios, export more high quality content overseas, and spark significant growth in the UK broadcasting industry and its contribution to the wider economy.

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Arts Funding: A new approach

Type: ReportsWritten by David Rawcliffe | Friday 12 March 2010

Government support for the arts is currently provided as a subsidy to producers. This system suffers from four major problems: it relies on an expensive bureaucracy; it distributes subsidies unequally between regions and income groups; it distorts producers’ incentives through corruption, politicisation and arbitrary criteria; and it reduces competition, innovation and efficiency. This paper proposes a new system for arts funding: consumer-side subsidies delivered as vouchers to all citizens, which would alleviate the four problems outlined above, and better fulfil the central objectives of art funding.

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Media, Meddling and Mediocrity

Type: ReportsWritten by Eben Wilson | Saturday 22 November 2003

Media entrepreneur Eben Wilson says that a state-supported BBC is simply out of date in a world of 2500 digital channels. Politicians love the free airtime, but why should we pay? Time to sell Auntie and give every family a £200 cashback.

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