TOC Vision awaiting visionaries Your Turn

November 20, 2012

Pity poor visionaries. They may never see the harvests they sowed, let alone reap them. Lest some of my faithful readers believe I bemoan my lot, I hasten to decline being a visionary. I do claim to have a vision and skip no opportunity to proclaim our world is in dire need of eprivacy. But to be a true visionary, knowledge is not enough. One must have the power to influence society and the will to expend it against the prevailing wisdom.

The paradox of peace, and our times are peaceful compared to the paroxysms of the past, the paradox of peace, I say, is precisely to raise to power those who hew to the prevailing wisdom. However generous, their dreams cannot replace actions. Thus peace is no place for visionaries.

Yet can there be a time more in need of visionaries that today, the period of transition into the Information Age? Dubbing the latter the Digital Age as some are wont to do is already a sign of shortsightedness, which confuses the means for what it means.

Stop. No more preaching please, we want examples. I agree. I should have started this fillip with some catchy lure. I should have recalled those catty creatures whose claws recently shredded so many manly reputations in the US.

In case you did not catch my allusion, here is a factual summary by Geoff Dyer and Cardiff Garcia. "Whether through diligence or nosiness, FBI agents [...] uncovered [...] first that Mr Petraeus, 60, was having an affair with Ms Broadwell, 40; and second that Gen Allen, 59, exchanged emails with Ms Kelley, 37, which the Pentagon has described as "potentially inappropriate" (*). The whole plot unravelled because Ms Kelley complained to the FBI of being harassed by some emails Ms Broadwell had sent her anonymously.

Nice try, you complain, but what has it to do with visionaries? Do you count on a contrast with the total lack of foresight displayed by all participants, from the very head of the CIA, General Petraeus, down to Frederick Humphries, the FBI agent who rode to Ms Kelley's help because he had a crush on her? Has in fact any facet of this fascinating affair escaped the chorus of commentators who have feasted on it ever since?

Ask yourself whether the publicity received by such a trite plot harmed the national interest of the United States. Your answer is bound to be positive. At the very least it encourages hostile foreign interests to groom seductive spies for posting in Tampa and other places of incongruous congress. It also puts a premium on hacking into email and social network services. Fancy the power to damage critical commanders on demand?

But then how come the United States leave themselves so exposed that it relies on chance and jealousy to stamp out the threat. What should be done? Prevent trysts by those in power? Humanly impossible. One must not mix delusion with vision. Forbid the FBI from reading electronic archives? In itself, an important measure but off the mark in the instance. The focus here is on defense against foreign cyberwarriors. What then?

The prevailing wisdom is that our Information Age has killed the traditional mail. I agree current postal administrations are fatally wounded but deny it follows from their impending demise that paper letters must be replaced with electronic postal cards and that all email must be centrally archived. Technology to seal mail in transit and discard all traces after delivery, though available, has never been made the default. It is a task for a visionary.

Although privacy is a non starter in our Information Age, Americans children under 13 are special. "The F.T.C. wants to expand the types of data whose collection requires prior parental permission to include persistent ID systems, like unique device codes or customer code numbers stored in cookies, if those codes are used to track children online for advertising purposes" (**). Natasha Singer reports, "the agency's proposals have provoked an intense reaction from some major online operators, television networks, social networks, app platforms and advertising trade groups".

With such overwhelming support, it is not surprising the FTC runs an underwhelming record despite having its heart in the right place. One must also recognize some industry complaints are justified. How can one maintain such an arbitrary border? Must the industry ask every user for proof of age? That would be tantamount to a real opt-in mechanism, in America a marketing anathema. Must therefore the industry demand that underage children identify themselves so as to gain protection against being identified? The remedy may well kill the patient.

If the FTC had real power and were run by real visionaries, it would understand that, to be efficient, any privacy protection must be implemented on the user's machine using user's personal data under user's control. The technology exists and supports targeted advertising despite the denials of Big Data. Consumer privacy for all should be a given. The issue, if it came to that, would be to protect the advertisers from spying by their competitors.

While privacy is my area of expertise, I have always sought to put it in the wider context of all information flows. John Kay forcefully points out how the latter have captured most of the value which used to ride on the exchange of manufactured goods. In the price of an iPhone which "sells, in the absence of carrier subsidy, for about $700", "purchased components may account for as much as $200", assembly in China "costs about $20", "the balance represents the return to [Apple]", the one responsible for designing and, I may add, marketing this object of desire (***).

A country runs a strategic risk whenever it relies too much on imports. In the case of the United States and China, who can say this dependency does not extend beyond consumer goods, which people can dispense with if necessary? Perhaps but John Kay brooks no argument for what he derides as "manufacturing fetishism" on the grounds of "concern for employment and the trade balance".

I am in full agreement. Still, I wish I could share John Kay's optimism, for his logic assumes Western societies to be run by visionaries. Instead and according to the prevailing wisdom, jobs and taxes ride on manufactured goods. Do not individuals and corporations cross conspire to strip the monetary value of intellectual property, personal data included, through digital piracy? Do not corporations shift any remaining profits to tax havens?

Visionaries would start today to align the economy with the main source of future value. Property law for one is a mess. Alas even when they have no future election to fear, crucial short term issues consumes the time and energy of those in power. They might even confess to being powerless.

At the dawn of the Information Age, people remain in darkness. Vision can bring a great light. But without a visionary, can it even be said to exist?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ..... The downfall of P4, by Geoff Dyer and Cardiff Garcia (Financial Times) - November 17, 2012
  • (**) ... A Trail of Clicks, Culminating in Conflict, by Natasha Singer (New York Times) - November 6, 2012
  • (***) . Our fetish for making things fails to understand 'real work', by John Kay (Financial Times) - November 14, 2012
November 2012
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