Data, Totalitarianism and Anarchy

The CoDE Team’s own Dr Phil Godsiff reports in from Future Agenda’s Future of Data workshop. Future Agenda is the world’s largest open foresight programme that shares insights globally, focusing on a view of the world in 2025, across 20 key areas.

The way that the ownership, nature and structure of data develop over the next 10 years has implications for socio-political structures and behaviours with strikingly different outcomes possible. Data carries with it the potential for enhanced empowerment — but for whom?

Access to data and its associated information and meaning has always been dependent on and a determinant of governance structures, with the intermediation of a “priestly” caste managing access, and interpreting “the” or “a” “truth”. The dimensions of this battle for the soul of data are laid out along the axes of privacy, identity and entitlements.

The spectral ends are easy to identify: totalitarianism, in which a centralising state attempts to regulate the public and private behaviour enabled by the new and emergent technologies; and a looser anarchy, in which a coercive state is not needed for regulation of society — crypto anarchists and cypher punks seek to achieve this through cryptographic software. Each alternative is seen by its opponent as dysfunctional and dystopian.

Less clear, in the absence of consensus, is an acceptable to all “middle ground”.

The technology is itself without motive, but is capable of driving in two directions; one in which solutions are increasingly capable of being “pulled” by the customer or affinity groups, using the digitally disruptive forces of convenience, connectivity and community; or one in which the forces of centralisation, enabled by economies of scale, and network effects concentrate activity within large scale corporate ecosystems.

Disruptive revolutionary effects on society are likely but not predictable, in which as ever, uses of technology emerge unforeseen by supporters and beyond the intentions of their inventors.

Whither Open Data? Get in touch if you’d like to know more about how CoDE is peering into the fog of an uncertain future.

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About the Author : Kris Henley

Communications and Outreach for Surrey Business School's Centre for the Digital Economy, a newly-founded research centre to explore the implications of the Digital Economy for business, government and society.