Thoughts from panel discussion at GCCS 2015: Rethinking the social impact of new technologies

BLOG: I was recently on a panel with Erik Huizer, Philip Brey and Tom de Bok moderated by Dinand Tinholt. We were discussing the social implications of ‘new’ technologies e.i. robotics and AI.

As the GCCS2015 is primarily a policy conference it made me think of the general framing in policymaking of ‘new technologies’ as devices and how this framing impedes us in addressing the larger picture. We were supposed to also talk about the Watson computer, but never got to this. Watson and the whole algorithmic societal shift that was also the centre topic of another panel (The Ethics of Algorithms) at the conference made me think of a more contemporary definition of privacy.

What if we defined privacy as unpredictability…? My thoughts expanded below.

A problem of framing in policymaking

To set of the panel Vint Cerf volunteered to demo a ‘mind drone’ that can be controlled by the pure efforts of the mind. It is quite amazing to actually see a drone being controlled by the mind. Lifting off the ground as brain waves are processed. But no matter how amazing and new it might seem and appear, we’ve actually been there before. Every new technology is doing the same thing. Reorganising space by breaking down barriers. The “mind drone” is just breaking down the last barrier between the interior space of the individual and the exterior space. However every time a new invention hits the streets policymakers struggle to follow pace and the first thing we do is to frame these new amazing things as ‘things’, that is: ‘devices’, ‘machines’, ‘tools’, and approach them accordingly with what ever policy approach may seem fit (regulations, guidelines, public support etc.). Right now policy responses around the world to the emerging drone industry are primarily concerned with security and safety aspects. E.g. the US FAA have stated that privacy is not an immediate concern and thus their recently published guidelines for commercial drones have no references to privacy aspects. Drones are framed as devices and tools, as means of transportation, toys, tools for scientists or journalists. But the problem with this approach is that all policy efforts are concentrated on one small – some times even insignificant – aspect of a new technology. The point is that just like any other machine ever created, drones are not just tools, they reorganise space, place, social relations, redistribute roles, rights and responsibilities. And they need to be addressed accordingly at an early stage.

Privacy is unpredictability

Policies and public responses rarely follow innovation and I’m sorry to say so innovation rarely follows the pure interest of man. The image of the brilliant techie in a creative vacuum is simply false. Innovation is today embedded with all types of interests. Ask a venture capitalist what type of new businesses he or she will fund. The answer will most certainly be that it is the one that has the most profitable future prospects. One that works in the grey zones of laws and regulations. That pushes the limits of laws. In a data driven industry it is of course implied here that we are talking about privacy and data protection laws. Innovation today is defined as exploration and processing of data, datafication, prediction and anticipation. This is the new norm of the algorithm.  One that promises objectivity, but is actually embedded with interests. Innovation today wants to datafy every human quality from our very identities, desires, feelings and needs (the social media profile) to knowledge and creavity (The Watson computer). The result is the predictable human and thus a more manageable human. Our last stand as humans is therefore to seek unpredictability. Privacy today is unpredictability.



A special thanks to professor Francesco Lapenta for feeding me with food for thought and great examples of the evolution of new technologies in preparation for this panel. See him developing his ideas on algorithmic predictive computing in this Republica 2013 talk.

Some more food for thought from on some related topics: “NEXT: “THE SEL FIE DRONE” – WHICH LAWS APPLY?” and “A Note on Algorithmic Storytelling”

GCCS 2015

The Global Conference on Cyberspace 2015 (GCCS 2015) was held on 16 and 17 April 2015 in the Netherlands. The conference was a follow-up of the Conferences on Cyberspace held in London (2011), Budapest (2012) and Seoul (2013).