TOC A New Year resolution Your Turn

January 1, 2013

The first day of the year, people tend to make new resolutions. Why not for instance read the newspapers with rose-tinted glasses?

Take this declaration from Stephan Loerke, Managing Director, World Federation of Advertisers. "The use of personal data could be worth 1tn euros to the European economy - 8 per cent of the region's gross domestic product" (*). Assume this is true. Doesn't it go a long way to justify the advice I gave Herman Van Rompuy? Assess a privacy tax on this data flow and you will shore up the European budget while promoting growth.

If "data are the lifeblood of the digital economy", recommendations by responsible, identifiable recommenders are both necessary, to filter such an unreliable resource, and valuable, in view of this necessity. It so happens everyone is called to actively participate in this new economic model.

Even if we hold advertisers to be skillfull weavers of weasel words, the new economic model promised by the Information Age thus appears to be well on its way. Due to an inevitable transition and its opportunistic Vandals, the current disruptions may be soon a thing of the past.

In no small part, the difficulty of this transition stems from the advertisers themselves, who insist they act as responsible recommenders when this claim is bound to collapse in a conflict of interest. Hence it is a very positive development to see sites specializing in real recommendations.

According to David Carr, "[Brian] Lamb and his staff of freelancers [...] recommend a single product in each [product] category" (**). Notice the Wirecutter gets "the vast majority of its revenues from fees paid by affiliates [...] for referrals to their sites".

The Wirecutter is paid for its recommendations. This is not in itself a source of bias for as long as the payment follows rather than precedes the recommendation, it does not influence a corrupt judgment, it recognizes a legitimate added-value. Because it is easy to cross this red line, I mention but cannot personally recommend The Wirecutter to my readers without further inquiries on my part. Added-value comes at a cost.

Real recommendations must be reserved for what the recommender knows intimately and only accepted by those who trust the recommender.

I have long advocated that the more decentralized a recommendation system, the better it is. What can best personal, private recommendations? If one's very friend proves either false or incompetent, the retribution can be swift without tearing society apart. "In a decentralized system, errors are by nature smaller [...], problems can be solved early", wisely declares Nassim Nicholas Taleb (***).

One may not always find the relevant expertise among one's friends, I admit, but my friends are highly likely to be able to recommend an expert recommender I can trust. The alternative, the omniscient friend, is ominous. For such friend is no human. Free from the FTC fetters, Pamela Jones Harbor does not mince her words on Google. Although it did not start that way, now "at its core, it's a data collection company" (****).

Knowledgeable voices share my memes, reputable entrepreneurs set the examples I called for, the source of future growth reaches critical mass.

My rose-tinted glasses seem to work very well. Unfortunately my ingrained penchant for word integrity threatens my visual accuracy.

As relayed by Somini Sengupta, "Instagram's cofounder, Kevin Systrom" declared "we don't own your photos - you do" (*****). How nice of him. Yet it takes so much pink pigment to color his comment, I can hardly read what he said. Tearing off my glasses and my New Year resolutions, I find that Kevin Systrom has been busy updating the English dictionary. Ownership in his hands takes on an elasticity to make savvy swindlers salivate. If he lived in my neighborhood, I would gladly drive his car around for my own purposes on his principle that what is his is mine to use as I see fit.

For Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, this is not so much a change in the definition of "ownership" as some "misleading shorthand". Instagram leaves you the title to "your" photos, but burdens it with whatever encumbrances this Facebook property deems expedient. I appreciate the difference. But I pine for the past, when laymen did not need lawyers to interpret elementary English. Pity poor users who believe "Instagram is free", as advertised, without understanding they have agreed to a contract with "complex and nuanced [...] provisions".

What if words take on new nuances? People are not naive. Perhaps I should be a bit more tolerant. Yet we should not dismiss the perspicacity of George Orwell. A true visionary, he knew the corruption of language is intimately linked to the enslavement of people as a whole.

When Nassim Nicholas Taleb speaks against excessive centralization, he does it in view of the fragility it brings to our economy. Diseconomies of scale indeed destroy capitalism itself behind the mendacious facade which Newspeak helps to maintain. Yet society runs on a mixture of greed and solidarity. From the latter perspective, excessive centralization is just as fatal. It bears us Big Brothers, as shown by Evgeny Morozov (******).

Quoting Eric Schmidt, he reminds us "technology is not really about hardware and software anymore. It's really about the mining and use of this enormous data to make the world a better place". Google's executive chairman could not be more luciferous. Let a Big Data company centralize all information, it grows omnipotent as well as omniscient and the "temptation to do good [is] only poised to increase", Evgeny Morozov warns us. Alas, logic has it that omnibenevolence cannot be delivered without falling short of human expectations unless the people lose their free will first.

Being unbearable, the logic of Big Data renders Newspeak indispensable. Alberto Mingardi, Director General, Istituto Bruno Leoni, responds to Evgeny Morozov, "[when] we supply information to Google "for our own good", [...] all that information is given voluntarily, by individuals who judge this to be in their best interest" (*******). Highwaymen too would let Dr Mingardi voluntarily decide to surrender his purse or his life.

If individuals can be counted upon to volunteer their personal data, why Stephan Loerke fears privacy laws requesting the "explicit, prior consent" of users? Why law makers in the pocket of Big Data are so reluctant to require such consent to be truly "voluntary" by forbidding companies to bundle it with transactions whose fulfillment does not need it? Necessary, Newspeak is also sufficient. Tolerate it as a useful means towards the greater goal of a thriving digital economy, and soon citizens will turn into data serfs as Big Data goes by the eminently practical motto "if we can, we may".

At the end of New Year's day, pink is to be reserved for tinting the Financial Times newspaper pages. To read the words, only clear glasses will do.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............. Digital marketing doesn't have to be intrusive, by Stephan Loerke (Financial Times) - December 19, 2012
  • (**) ........... Buffeted By the Web, But Now Riding It, by David Carr (New York Times) - December 17, 2012
  • (***) ......... Stabilization Won't Save Us, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (New York Times) - December 24, 2012
  • (****) ....... The Emperor of All Identities, by Pamela Jones Harbor (New York Times) - December 19, 2012
  • (*****) ..... Control of Content In Social Media Remains Fuzzy, by Somini Sengupta (New York Times) - December 31, 2012
  • (******) ... Google should not be choosing right and wrong, by Evgeny Morozov (Financial Times) - December 24, 2012
  • (*******) . What Google does is supply products to meet a demand, by Alberto Mingardi (Financial Times) - December 28, 2012
January 2013
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