Big Data on the Left: Distributism

[Editor: I will be publishing a series of articles that support the work of Radical Mindfulness, with perspectives on science, governance, systems theory, and social network analysis.]

There is a leftwing way to challenge big tech for our data. Here it is

Only with radical empowerment can we as citizens halt further intrusion from Google and co

A city at night overlaid with communication icons and network lines
The city figures prominently in how digital technologies penetrate our life. Photograph: Busakorn Pongparnit/Getty Images

For all its supposed complexity, our digital future does have a logic shaping its basic foundations. It’s mostly an interplay of two conflicting dynamics: one of data extractivism – propelled primarily by big tech’s dependence on new sources of data; and one of data distributism – propelled by all those opposed to big tech’s rapid ascendance.

The latest example of the former dynamic comes from the Wall Street Journal, which has uncovered Facebook’s efforts to cajole banks into sharing their customers’ data, including account balances and card transactions (Facebook says it’s not “actively” seeking such data).

With this move, Facebook wants to ensure that its services are used to perform tasks as trivial as contacting the bank’s support desk or making payments. And the longer we stay on the site to access our data, the more new data it collects. On Facebook, all roads lead to data extractivism.

Supporters of data distributism have no unifying ideology. However, they are firmly united in opposing the status quo, whereby technology platforms serve as self-appointed custodians of the world’s data.

The rightwing undercurrent of this movement got an early start, as many industries had sensed that surrendering their data to big tech would eventually chip away at their margins.

Their proposed solution, touted by the World Economic Forum in Davos and other neoliberal aficionados, is to extend the private property paradigm to personal data, drastically raising the costs of data extractivism. A recent 150-page report on the benefits of treating data as private property from GenerationLibre, a French thinktank, envisions a data utopia of decentralised markets and self-enforcing contracts, a set of proposals that makes Friedrich von Hayek look like a socialist.

Such a policy agenda is largely informed by the rightwingers’ analysis of the contemporary condition, which they often depict as “digital feudalism”. This diagnosis stems from the accurate observation that some firms are siphoning precious resources (ie data) for which they either do not pay or pay very little. However, if this is feudalism, then capitalism has never really arrived; it’s hard to find a business practice more in line with the ethos of the capitalist enterprise than getting away with free stuff.

Likewise, the idea that big tech is just a bunch of passive rentiers who live off the (data) backs of their users is equally dubious; their vast spending on research and development – Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple spent almost $57bn on it last year alone– is hard to square with their supposed rentier-like status. Big tech is capitalism at its best or, rather, worst; to speak of the onset of “digital feudalism” is to pine for a capitalism that never existed.

There is also an emerging leftwing undercurrent to this movement. The idea of a new approach to data ownership, including the possibility of a national data trust, has gained some currency with the Labour party. Writing in Handelsblatt, Germany’s leading business paper, the Social Democrat leader, Andrea Nahles, argued that technology firms should be forced to share their data with the rest of society, so as not to impede social progress. She compared big tech to big pharma, which, thanks to legal interventions, cannot enjoy indefinite exclusive rights over its intellectual property.

A reasonable position, it seems. Yet to be credible and effective, the leftwing distributist agenda needs to overcome a great obstacle: citizens’ falling trust in the state as a vehicle of advancing their interests.

Handing more data to state institutions that already thrive on excessive surveillance would not restore that trust. Then there’s always the temptation that such data will be used for state-approved social engineering otherwise known as “nudging” and “behavioural change”. Giving government institutions even more data will only fuel the “deep state” conspiracy theories of the fringe rightwing groups.

The distributist left, thus, should not balk at proposing ambitious political reforms to go along with their new data ownership regime. These must openly acknowledge that the most meaningful scale at which a radical change in democratic political culture can occur today is not the nation state, as some on the left and the right are prone to believe, but, rather the city.

The city is a symbol of outward-looking cosmopolitanism – a potent answer to the homogeneity and insularity of the nation state. Today it is the only place where the idea of exerting meaningful democratic control over one’s life, however trivial the problem, is still viable.

From transport to food delivery, from accommodation to energy consumption, the city also figures prominently in how digital technologies penetrate our life. That the city is also the primary target of big tech is no accident: if these firms succeed in controlling its infrastructure, they need not worry about much else.

The true challenge for the data distributist left is, thus, to find a way to distribute power, not just data. It must mobilise the nation state to turn cities into the harbingers of a new, radical democracy keen on deploying socialised big data and artificial intelligence in the interests of citizens. Without such an emphasis on radical empowerment, the data distributism of the left will only be a boon to the loony far right.

Evgeny Morozov is the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom

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