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From ePrivacy to the Information Age

mardi 30 avril 2013, par Philippe Coueignoux

April 30, 2013

Seven years ago I confessed a taste for epics. I soon realized I had embarked into my own Odyssey on a sea of information.

Officially my quest was to deliver eprivacy, a legitimate right to our own data , the expression of our own life, a genuine artistic creation, bound and shackled as it was, and still is, by unjust laws backed by studied ignorance and rapacious greed.

It did not take me long though to understand such a goal could not be taken in isolation. As one kind of data rights, eprivacy lies at the intersection of property and information. And as it happens, these two concepts have been in total turmoil for more than a decade. Having outdated property law a long time ago, advances in digital technology are busy ushering in a new age of civilization I like to call the Information Age.

So the more my curiosity pushed me to put eprivacy in context, the deeper I was drawn into topics as far ranging as politics, economics, sociology and religion. Far from being abstract, my inquiry has driven me to examine concrete facts affecting industries as diverse as airlines, healthcare, from physicians to scientists, luxury, newspapers, sports, telecommnunications, beyond the native Information Age industry, from Amazon to Google.

Being knowledgeable in none of these subjects, I have been careful to document my sources. Indeed the best evidence to the breadth of my survey is to be found in the indexes I compiled for topics covered, companies cited and authors quoted.

Seven years later I feel I have finally built a consistent framework. I started my narrative with hints of playing Cassandra, the truthful prophet of doom among the treasures of Troy. I now find myself in the position of Saint Augustine, the thruthful doctor of hope among the ruins of Rome,

We have entered into the Information Age all right, but our time is one of transition marked by the wanton destruction of past standing structures by plundering pirates living off the land and the sudden abrogation of the implicit contracts which undergird society. The most striking feature of our Age so far has been the apparent impotence of the states to protect their citizens from the power of border blind corporations. Under such a pressure and as it was in the Vth century, the states are weakening in line with their ability to tax and the reluctance of individuals to behave as citizens.

I have now reached a point where the fast flow of news rarely illuminates new avenues for thought. Rather it illustrates what I have already written.

Amy Chozick and Nicole Perlroth report "a Twitter hoax on Tuesday claiming President Obama was injured in an explosion at the White House" (*). I said all information is a lie pending inquiry. This easy to debunk trial balloon "temporarily [...] eras[ed] $136 billion in market value". No matter how fleeting, no matter how false, market moving news are valuable to some. "Rich Brown, global head of Elektron Analytics, [...] added : "The nature of electronic trading exarcerbated the problem"". Imposed by productivity imperatives, automation is as much curse as cure.

Richard Waters cogently explains why "Apple should think of borrowing when it has about $145bn of liquid assets" (**). I said Apple’s success rests on running on an innovation treadmill. Short of Steve Jobs’ gifts, Apple’s creativity is now in "debt designs", good for Apple if not for America.

Gillian Tett ponders the value of a "letter that Francis Crick [...] wr[ote] to his son 60 years ago after he and fellow scientist James Watson had discovered the double helix structure of DNA" (***). I said the march of History too is an helix. Our ancestors avidly collected the bones of the saints. We now spend fortunes on papers by famous scientists. As Gillian Tett points out, our descendants will have to find something else to value beyond reason. Digital records leaves no original.

I claim to have cast a structure upon chaos and confusion. To call it an achievement would be inappropriate. People want to know the future and hear no depressing problem without some positive answer. Alas it would be a mistake to look for it in the past. I love History and my readers’ heads may be spinning from my spanning countries from Poland to China, rulers from Kheops to President Obama, centuries from the Vth to the XIIth to the XVIIIth with the abandon of a US Constitution scholar. Still the arrow of time is irreversible. The past only foresees the future in hindsight.

What I did then is to make bold propositions rather than detailed predictions. I cannot compel society anytime soon to burden discrimination with its economonic cost, force creators to cooperate, get the people to update the US Constitution or even convince states to raise a privacy tax. Only visionaries can do that. More crucially I have highlighted three facts whose day must come as the Information Age matures into sustainability.

First no future economic model can be sustainable without money, to exchange and store value efficiently, and popular without giving everyone the practical ability to earn some. Jobs will always be required to supply society with food, energy and the material amenities of life. But there will soon be too few jobs to give everyone a living and no state can rely on social solidarity alone, as it must finance its growth from a shrinking tax base. The only scalable solution is to monetize data creation and, as creative stars are rare, this must include the data on which human relationships are based.

Second the worry money can corrupt human relations is legitimate but should not turn its use into a taboo. If the problem is addressed, solutions can be found, to free personal recommenders from too eager suppliers and give more initiative to consumers. The real issue is that far too many intellectual resources get sunk into pursuing petty points. Hear Philip Stephens. "The annals of unusual conflicts will surely record that the 18th-century War of Jenkins’ Ear (1) was a pretty unremarkable affair when set against today’s War of the Spreadsheet Coding Error" (****).

The third fact derives from the previous two. Data created relationships between a supplier, a consumer and a recommender are corrupt as soon the supplier can coerce the other parties, spy on them and generally deal with loaded dice. No sustainable economic future can exist without eprivacy.

For the sake of a truth I cannot prove and which will remain unpopular as it threatens consumers with new responsibilities, this is the best I can do. An admission which modesty must transform into a conclusion. I will certainly continue to speak my mind under the format I consider to be the fittest but please accept the fact this fillip is the last of its kind.

ePrivacy is technically possible and highly desirable for the future of the Information Age. I rest my case. Allow me to take a rest.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ....... Twitter Speaks, Markets Listen, And Fears Rise, by Amy Chozick and Nicole Perlroth (New York Times) - April 29, 2013
  • (**) ..... Apple’s debts designs are no substitute for real innovation, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - April 25, 2013
  • (***) ... Valuing the precious letters of DNA, by Gillian Tett (Financial Times) - April 20, 2013
  • (****) . The New Deal for Europe : more reform, less austerity, by Philip Stephens(Financial Times) - April 26, 2013
  • (1) for more informations, see the War of Jenkins’ Ear in the wikipedia
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