Information technology is enslaving us: we must learn to master it

I have a new hobby horse: the politics of information. The development of information technology is transforming our lives, but the politicians are being left behind. This is becoming at least as important as economics and finance to the way we live our lives.

But we amateurs face a problem. The IT industry obfuscates everything in jargon and tech-speak. It is easy to get intimidated. In the FT Gillian Tett draws a parallel with the finance industry before the great financial crisis of 2007-08. It is liable to end just as badly. We really must try to hack back the thicket.

I’ve been here before. Back in the 1990s I was appointed Director of Information Systems by my firm, in spite of having no direct IT background. I was nearly suffocated by the jargon and tech-speak. But gradually I came to realise that IT wasn’t as complicated as people were making it out to be. In fact it wasn’t fundamentally more complex than the average office filing system in pre IT days, and it was dealing with much the same issues. If you stuck to firm logical ground, the techies would retreat. I found a world dominated by bluff and which reasoned in a series of attractive sounding non-sequiturs. People were watching each other and saying whatever they had to to fit in. With just a little clarity of thought you could get a long way.

So I will take a deep breath and start to think about the world of information systems and technology, even though it is a very different one from where I left it in the 1990s, or even in 2005, when I stopped working with information systems professionally as a user.

And so to the basics. How do we, as people, manage information? We do two basic things. The first is to gather data from the world around us. The second is to process that data into information that we can use to achieve goals both passive (looking out for danger) and active (finding food, say). All this requires us to be both aware and focused – two things that tend to be mutually exclusive. How humans (and other animals) do this is a very complex process that is only very loosely understood by scientists. The interesting thing is that at its core is a duality – the outwardly referenced right brain, and the inwardly focused left brain. I am currently reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary¬†which builds a substantial intellectual critique of the modern world from a right-brain left-brain duality. At this stage, though, all I want to say is that the outward/inward duality is central to the understanding of how we deal with information.

This duality is recognisable in the way modern technology works. Here I think it is useful to distinguish between what I would call “big data” and “useful data”. Big data is the amassing of data from many sources. In the modern age this is often from such things as video footage, photographs and sound recordings. But big data is not directly usable to achieve anything. To do that it has to be reduced to patterns and digits that are useful data. The big modern development is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to achieve this. Previously, useful data was mainly gathered through human input.

There is one key point that needs to be understood about the useful data sitting in computer databases. It works on the principle of distillation. It is an infinitesimal subset of the real world, and even that is before you deal with problems of reflecting time. To move from the real world to this data requires a series of simplifying judgements.In practice this means that data does not multi-task well. To be efficient the data has to be referenced to a particular need, and it will serve other needs less well. And yet the pressure to make such data multi-task is enormous. And this leads to widespread problems.

Lets take an example. One commonly used bit of data is the British postcode. It is designed to delineate postman’s walks to organise mail delivery. It is not designed to reflect insurance risks, for example – but it is often used for just that purpose. As an example I was told by an eminent geologist about how he was asked to assess landslip risks in a town’s postcodes. He found one code which consisted of a valley with no homes in it, with the edge of the town where people actually lived. The landslip risk in the valley was high, but in the town it was negligible. So how to rate the risk for that postcode? According to the rules he was being asked to abide by, he should rate it as high. And yet that would mean that the homes in that code would be overcharged for their insurance. He refused to do it; but doubtless the insurance company found somebody more compliant. Why should they care about a bit of collateral damage? That kind of problem¬† predates modern IT, but technology allows it to proliferate in multiple hidden ways.

That perhaps illustrates the scale of the challenge that IT presents to liberal values. We as individuals are being made to conform to a world of arbitrary categories, because that is more convenient for systems builders. Instead of technology giving us more control over our lives, it is forcing us to conform to somebody else’s will.

But humans can be masters of technology, rather than being slaves to it. That is the liberal challenge.



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