Big bad wolves and fairy godmothers
This brings me back to my key question: will data storage have an ethical dimension in the Digital Future Society? In my opinion, it most certainly does. Sometimes, I feel that phrases like ‘transparency and accountability’ are in danger of becoming debilitated in these discussions. On the one hand, we want to shine a light on organisations, their algorithms and their usage. But we also want these private and public institutions to be our custodians, keeping us safe and secure from the bad actors who undoubtedly exist. Transparency may create risk if data becomes accessible to the wrong forces by virtue of forcing openness at the wrong time, or in the wrong fashion.
It’s as if we want the guardians of our data, be they governmental or private, to be both the big bad wolf and the fairy godmother at the same time. This duality is not credible or sustainable in my opinion.
Storage is ethical to me because depending on what kind of technology you use to store your data, you make it more accessible or less accessible; more secure or more vulnerable; sustainable and environmentally friendly, or not. And those trade offs can have real world impacts in terms of gender or racial equality, career fulfillment or personal opportunity, vectors that most certainly are moral.
It’s important to note that regulations like Europe’s GDPR may not completely assist in this regard. GDPR doesn’t say anything very specific about what technology you should to store data. It merely affirms the outcome it expects - e.g. for data to be available, amendable, disposable and secure. Keeping data on a flash-array, or in the cloud, may make the information highly available but more vulnerable to cybercrime. Putting it all on magnetic tape and stowing it away in a vault could make it impossible for data subjects - me, you, everyone - to get access to it in a hurry. Keeping more data on an inexpensive medium like tape might permit an organisation to invest more in protecting the content that resides closer to the front line. But individual files preserved on tape may not be as simple to locate as objects stored in the cloud. They may be more difficult to use for analysis that could enhance society in a positive way. How often do we hear ‘if only we had known at the time’ in public life? As with any ethical dilemma, there always are trade offs.
Into the future: society or system?
I think these considerations will only accelerate as we enter the imminent 5G future where ‘always on, always connected’ data gathering is going to be as pervasive as oxygen to the functioning of our world. When every moment of your daily life can be captured in 8K resolution from countless cameras; when all your interactions can be recorded by IoT devices and shared instantly across 5G networks; when AI can be used to make instant decisions based on what you do, or what you appear ready to do, purely because of your skin tone, age or gender; the underlying fabric of this vastly intelligent system, including the storage, presents an ethical choice for companies. Our networks will be as closed or as open as we choose or demand to make them.
That also made me wonder whether one day, we might no longer use the word ’society’ to talk about our relationships and interaction, choosing to use the word ‘system’ instead. A world that is based upon a grand alliance of humanity and technology may cease to be entirely human, especially as seems likely, there will be millions of robots living and working along side us with varying degrees of intelligence.
Who looks after the data privacy rights of AI machines, especially those capable of generating new ‘personal’ information through machine learning? Artificial creations such as software bots, physical robots, and synthetic biological constructs are unlike any human character and yet something like individual agency can be said to be evolving in them. For example, the way in which AI can now master games or converse. What happens when those artificial agents begin to ‘learn’ ethics and morality entirely independently? How do we value these qualities?
We have a tendency to talk about data in the digital future in the abstract. But it's huge. Data upon an unimaginable scale, 175 trillion gigabytes by 2025. So we’re talking about the Milky Way rather than the Pacific Ocean. The Digital Future Society seminar was a fascinating and enjoyable discussion around a series of questions and challenges that will become more and more pressing as we move towards the stupendous data-driven visions being shared just down the road at MWC.
“Because of the close relationships among the physical, biological and social aspects of any large-scale technological project, advanced large-scale technology cannot be one-sided, in the service of narrow interests, short-sighted, and beyond control: it is many-sided, socially oriented, farsighted, and morally bridled”,
Marc Bunge, ‘Towards a Technoethics’