TOC Unruly behavior Your Turn

September 1, 2009

"Free market deregulation [...] was so dominant that it was somewhat like a "religion". Relaying the heretical ideas of an Anglo Saxon high priest of finance, Gillian Tett further declares that "ideologies are always rooted in shifting power structures and struggles" (*). The bankers had secured their rule by using ideology to prevent the government from issuing rules of its own. Count on a social anthropologist to break "complicitous silence".

Whatever the type of social interaction considered, rules, "rules of engagement" as Michael Schrage calls them, are necessary. Self-regulation is no regulation as, despite what they say, wolves should not be expected to guard the sheep. And confusing the absence of rules with freedom comes at a heavy human cost. Before the meet, couldn't have someone told Caster Semenya whether or not she must race with the men to win a medal?

Gillian Tett warns us however against the danger of putting too much of our faith in some reformed church. "Any new "theory" [...] will have limitations too". Her advice is to "keep remaking policy, as the world evolves", a Tao theory of regulation as it were.

Take Wikipedia for instance. Anonymous and untested editors will no longer be able to modify entries about living people without approval from an "experienced editor", reports Noam Cohen (**). We chided Wikipedia for being superficially democratic. Now it becomes more openly elitist. Perhaps not a bad thing since "[it] reflects [its] necessary acceptance of the responsibility which comes with its vast influence". But true to the pattern recognition trade-off, countenancing fewer lies must be paid with slowing down the truth, if not downright censorship.

Updating our legal framework to account for the Internet revolution would seem the most urgent manifestation of Gillian Tett's Tao. Unfortunately most content publishers and media barons are adamantly set against it, claiming copyrights laws have been sanctified by age. With such practices no wonder iconoclasm against consecrated industrial monopolies becomes ever more popular. Who needs physical reproductions anyway?

Gillian Tett though should not be read as promoting relativistic chaos. Evolution does not exclude progress. True, we must remain vigilant lest our sense of direction prove to be deficient. But to reject asking for directions on the ground we might get lost would be imitating Gribouille. "A world without a reliable compass is frightening, exhausting and time-consuming to navigate".

Take Facebook today. Bereft of any sense of direction short of the need to justify its own lofty valuation, living on borrowed time according to the Micawber business model, absent a law to establish our fundamental right to eprivacy, Facebook is forever changing course in response to external pressure. Reported by David Gelles, its most recent move was to defuse "threats of legal action from Canada's privacy commissioner" (***).

The matter is we are in dire need of making sense of our Information Age. Even if one were to dismiss social networking as mere gossip, could one ignore what is at stake in the health and financial sectors?

Sarah Arnquist's article on health databases is a perfect illustration (****). For Dr. Robert Cook-Deegan, "[patient fed] databases could be a valuable resource for researchers needing to recruit [...] patients quickly" but he is "very suspicious of compan[ies with] tons of private data getting too cozy with the drug or biotech industry". For Dr. James Potash, "self-reported data" may not be "good enough for high-quality research". The promise of sharing, the temptation offered by violating eprivacy, the difficulty of ascertaining truth, it is all there. "We all are sensitive to the fact we are making the rules up as we go along." Doesn't what Dr. Demetri acknowledges concerning data quality apply to all aspects in this field?

A different light is cast by Alex Berenson's report on Sergay Aleynikov's arrest (*****). The latter is accused of "stealing software code from Goldman Sachs, his old employer". Proprietary trading software has become valuable indeed and some credit the trend to the opportunity it creates to game markets. My point however is how contentious the relationship has become between companies and employes with legitimate access to company information. Financial sector companies do not always win. Gwen Robinson blogs on how such companies are allegedly blackmailed in Tokyo into outsized pay-off deals by IT guys who "busily digest[...] the content they're supposed to be processing or facilitating" (******).

As long as companies like Google maintain the fiction machines, not employees, handle our personal data, while pronaocracy ensures individual pirates of corporate data are prosecuted but companies pirating individuals' data are left to self-regulate, until data access creates fiduciary duties as stringent as when handling monetary assets, winds and currents will keep adrift an Information Age without a bearing.

Were this Age nothing but an illusion, I would maintain my motto and turn it into its mantra, "Privacy, Identity, Responsibility".

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............... The flawed ideas that mean we need a new compass, by Gillian Tett (Financial Times) - August 28, 2009
  • (**) ............. Slowing Down Wiki Writers, by Noam Cohen (New York Times) - August 25, 2009
  • (***) ........... Canada forces tighter Facebook privacy, by David Gelles (Financial Times) - August 28, 2009
  • (****) ......... Research Trove: Patients' Online Data, by Sarah Arnquist (New York Times) - August 25, 2009
  • (*****) ....... Arrest Over Trading Software Illuminates a Secret of Wall St., by Alex Berenson (New York Times) - August 24, 2009
  • (******) ..... IT paranoia, by Gwen Robinson (Financial Times) - July 29, 2009
September 2009
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