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.



Liberals must address the politics of information or sinister forces will prevail

In my last post I urged the Lib Dems to think beyond Brexit. I suggested that the party should develop radical new ideas on the politics of information and technology, following a recent essay by Paddy Ashdown. But that was all very abstract. What does this actually mean?

Information and technology are throwing up difficult issues that affect practically everything. And yet liberal politicians seem to be in various stages of denial – and that may let more sinister forces make the running. Let me touch on just four issues to illustrate my point: fighting crime; cyber security; making the NHS more efficient; and tackling the cyber monopolists.

According to popular myth, crime is always getting worse. Statistically that looks like nonsense (except cyber crime, which I will come to) – but the nature of threat is changing, and a lot of people worry about it. Top of the list is terrorism, and especially Islamic extremist terrorists. Increasingly police forces are using information technology to fight these crimes. And these largely depend on gathering banks of data (DNA profiles, mug shots, video camera footage, email records, and so on) in order to identify criminals and terrorists.  Liberals, fairly consistently push back. But it is far from clear that the public is against this banking of data. It looks like a good way of stopping the bad guys.

I am sure that the liberal position on this needs to be rethought. Society has changed, including attitudes to privacy, and old-fashioned techniques for fighting crime are losing effectiveness. But the threats of excessive state power are real enough. False positives happen, and that can lead to a quagmire of circular investigation procedures with nobody taking responsibility, and a potentially permanent stain on reputation, all for a completely random cause. Perhaps it is better to reform the management and oversight of security services so that false positives can be dismissed rapidly, rather than throwing sand into the wheels of justice? That’s a half-baked idea – but by simply pushing back and dismissing the danger, liberals are in danger of losing the argument. And if that happens the advocates of unchecked state control will win out.

Cyber crime is definitely growing, and we struggle even to recognise it. It seems to be invisible in the crime statistics. We don’t bother to report the attempts to defraud us that come to our email inboxes and telephones daily. Further, we depend increasingly on online databases, and yet there are sophisticated hackers out there who often get ahead of those charged with data security. Can we leave it to the market to keep up with the hackers and ensure our security? Or shouldn’t the state be more involved in establishing data standards that will make life much harder for criminals?  I hear no politicians, liberal or otherwise, who want to talk about this except the odd injunction that “somebody must do something”. But action for action’s sake will simply lead to regulators making life harder for the innocent while doing little to tackle the real criminals. And we can’t rely on state agencies to protect liberal values while dealing with the problem either – their solution is always to appropriate more arbitrary power to themselves. Liberals must get involved.

For a different angle, consider Britain’s National Health Service. The NHS is chronically inefficient. Large organisations are best dealing with simple problems; our health is infinitely complex. One aspect of this inefficiency is record-keeping. Our health records are fragmented, adding to medical risks and causing delays to treatment. And we can’t check whether patients are entitled to treatment without making everybody feel like foreigners in their own land. Technical solutions to this depend on creating a single central NHS file for everybody from birth. There have been attempts to develop this, but, quite apart from the difficulties that afflict all ambitious IT projects, there is a big problem. This central record will contain highly personal and confidential data. How on earth to stop it being stolen? If it is voluntary it will lose much of its power. We are back to the problem of hacking. Once again liberals shout about protecting privacy and individual choice without coming forward with constructive solutions. And the NHS is collapsing under the strain.

Another feature of the 21st Century world is the enormous power of a small group of businesses who are able to harness network effects to create a virtual monopoly. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon spring to mind immediately. Apart from Amazon, these businesses are starting to pile up enormous profits. And yet they are also innovative and constantly improving their offering – so unlike classic monopolies, especially state-owned ones. What should governments do? On the one hand excessive power is accumulating to people who are not properly accountable tot he public. On the other hand most types of intervention risk reducing the benefits of modern technology available to ordinary people. Liberals need a new angle on the problem.

And I could go on. Fake news; tax avoidance and evasion; automation and the destruction of stable, secure jobs for the majority. All these are 21st Century problems to which liberals have few new ideas. And there are opportunities too. Technology has the possibility to abolish poverty and allow everybody to achieve a more fulfilling life. It is very interesting that Germany’s Free Democrats (see the the FDP minimanifesto for the current general election) have chosen the more optimistic gloss. This party has rebranded itself, based on the idea that politics need to be rethought in the modern information age. Whether they are targeting the right things is another matter – to some it may simply look like re-badged neoliberalism. But keeping the message positive is probably the right tactic.

The liberal agenda should be an enabling one. We want people to benefit from the many things technology and information-sharing can offer. But we need to give individuals more control. And we need to prevent the state growing into something that suppresses freedom and democracy in the name of security – as is happening in China, Turkey and Russia, to name but three. Neither do we want the world turned into an open market for abuse and bullying, in the manner promoted by Breitbart News. Sinister forces will prevail unless liberals start to make the running.

This will need fresh thinking. Some newer technological developments – blockchains for example – may offer answers. But it will not be easy – there will be trade-offs. Privacy against security, for example. We need the intellectual framework to manage these trade-offs.

I will try to practice what I am preaching. I am not especially well-qualified to deal with the politics of information, but I will give it a try. I don’t know where this journey will end, but I hope to provoke further thought and discussion amongst my readers.