Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison

The main thing I want to muse over a little this week arose from a lovely conversation with Renate that I had, in which I got fixated on the word “harmony” as a way of describing the kind of societal settlement (around data) that we should be aiming towards.

There’s a particular Eastern / Chinese vision of a harmonious society which seeks to alleviate societal inequalities and unrest. Challenges related to inequalities and polarisation were a common theme as I was reading around international data/digital/tech policies. The second sentence of the English pamphlet on the [South] Korean New Deal talks about polarising social inequalities: “As Korea’s economy matured, however, the country began to see a decline in its growth rate, while its insufficient social security system further widened levels of polarization.“ Norway’s Labour Party’s manifesto on technology talked class and generational divisions, and “digital alienation”:

The technological revolution also has a downside. If we let market forces run wild, the platform economy will create new monopolies, challenge safe working life and make the public more polarized. We are about to have new, deeper class divisions because large groups in society, not least the elderly, are excluded. For the Labor Party, it is crucial that everyone participates, and that it is the community that controls development when technology changes society, and not the other way around. The Labor Party will fight digital alienation.

By this argument technology contributes to social unrest through things like:

  • polarisation caused by filter bubbles
  • increasing economic inequalities due to big tech monopolies and the changing nature of work
  • increasing social inequalities due to the digital divide
  • (and perhaps decreasing trust in institutions due to their creepy use of data)

Aiming for harmony to me smacks of “if everyone who’s moaning would just shut up then we’ll be able to live peacefully”. It’s the kind of approach that bans noisy or disruptive protests, or limits the right to strike. Or, as in the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, makes it easier to claim that a data subject exercising their rights is being vexatious.

While not wanting to be full-on Marxist about it, I do think we’re more likely to get to a just society if we instead embrace disharmony, and enable argument and negotiation between those that do and don’t hold power. What’s needed is not the suppression or placation of people who are being inconvenient, but a progressive and constructive disharmony that enables both sides to give-and-take their way to settlements (recognising that these arguments are never fully resolved, but shift over time).

Progressive disharmony in data governance involves having arguments between data holders and those affected by data in deliberative processes, in board rooms, in parliament, in arbitration, or in the courts. These arguments need to be enabled rather than suppressed, but there also needs to be a process for coming to a conclusion that could require enforceable changes in behaviour, whether that comes through consensus, majority vote, or independent judgement. This is what we’re getting at when we talk about powerful participation.

In other news

  • I went to the Justice Lab launch on Wednesday evening. It was great to see people in the flesh, and nice to hear a couple of shout outs from the amazing Natalie Byrom for the work we’ve been doing with Justice Lab looking at next steps following the Justice Data Matters research they did with Ipsos UK. Talking of which, we finally managed to publish the results of that evaluation this week (which reminds me that we really should write a summary for participation practitioners who aren’t particularly interested in the justice sector…).
  • We ran the first of our workshops with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, to examine lessons learned from people involved in other “insight infrastructure” efforts. Tim has written it up properly, but for me it just reinforced the argument I made in my earlier piece about insight infrastructures, that they are just as much (if not more) about the people and organisations who can help interpret data as they are about a technical platform.
  • Talking of which, I spent more time than I should this week trying to persuade someone that building a data marketplace was not going to fix the issue of commercial companies not sharing the data they hold. An approach I think is more likely to be successful is that from the Committee of Experts on Non-Personal Data Governance, coming out of India, which is roughly to require “data businesses” (organisations that meet certain thresholds for holding particular types of data) both to publish catalogues of their data holdings, and to provide access to anyone who requests them on a “public good” basis. The economic characteristics of data and the data economy mean that market forces aren’t going to get you to optimal sharing, I’m afraid.

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