Why we need a 21st-century Martin Luther to challenge the church of tech

It’s 500 years since Martin Luther defied the authority of the Catholic church. It’s time for a similar revolt against the hypocrisy of the religion of technology

Left to right: Sergey Brin of Google, Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Steve Jobs of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.

Anew power is loose in the world. It is nowhere and yet it’s everywhere. It knows everything about us – our movements, our thoughts, our desires, our fears, our secrets, who our friends are, our financial status, even how well we sleep at night. We tell it things that we would not whisper to another human being. It shapes our politics, stokes our appetites, loosens our tongues, heightens our moral panics, keeps us entertained (and therefore passive). We engage with it 150 times or more every day, and with every moment of contact we add to the unfathomable wealth of its priesthood. And we worship it because we are, somehow, mesmerised by it.

In other words, we are all members of the Church of Technopoly, and what we worship is digital technology. Most of us are so happy in our obeisance to this new power that we spend an average of 50 minutes on our daily devotion to Facebook alone without a flicker of concern. It makes us feel modern, connected, empowered, sophisticated and informed.

Suppose, though, you were one of a minority who was becoming assailed by doubt – stumbling towards the conclusion that what you once thought of as liberating might actually be malign and dangerous. But yet everywhere you look you see only happy-clappy believers. How would you go about convincing the world that it was in the grip of a power that was deeply hypocritical and corrupt? Especially when that power apparently offers salvation and self-realisation for those who worship at its sites?

It would be a tough assignment. But take heart: there once was a man who had similar doubts about the dominant power of his time. His name was Martin Luther and 500 years ago on Tuesday he pinned a long screed on to the church door in Wittenberg, which was then a small and relatively obscure town in Saxony. The screed contained a list of 95 “theses” challenging the theology (and therefore the authority) of the then all-powerful Catholic church. This rebellious stunt by an obscure monk must have seemed at the time like a flea bite on an elephant. But it was the event that triggered a revolution in religious belief, undermined the authority of the Roman church, unleashed ferocious wars in Europe and shaped the world in which most of us (at least in the west) grew up. Some flea bite.

In posting his theses Luther was conforming to an established tradition of scholastic discourse. A “thesis”, in this sense, is a succinctly expressed proposition put forward as the starting point for a discussion. What made Luther’s theses really provocative, though, was that they represented a refutation of both the theology and the business model of the Catholic church. In those days, challenging either would not have been a good career move for an Augustinian monk. Challenging both was suicidal.

To understand the significance of this, some theological background helps. A central part of Catholic theology revolved around sin and the consequences thereof. Sins were divided into three grades – original, venial and mortal. The first was what you were born with (because the default setting for humans was “flawed”) and was absolved by baptism. The second category consisted of peccadillos. The third – mortal – were grievous sins.

The church had established an elaborate machine for enabling its members to deal with their moral transgressions. They could confess them to a priest and receive absolution on condition that they did a prescribed penance. But for a medieval Catholic, the visceral fear was of dying with an unconfessed – and therefore unabsolved – mortal sin on your record. In that case, you went to hell for eternity, tortured by perennial fire and all the horrors imagined by Hieronymous Bosch.

If you died with just unabsolved venial sins, however, then you did time in an intermediate prison called purgatory until you were eventually discharged and passed on to paradise. Being in purgatory was obviously better than roasting at gas mark six, and your place in heaven was ultimately guaranteed. But if you could minimise your time in the holding area then you would.

Into this market opportunity stepped the Roman church with an ingenious product called an indulgence. This was like a voucher that gave you a reduction in your purgatorial stay. Initially, you could get an indulgence in return for an act of genuine penitence – following the confessional model – or for visiting a holy relic. But there came a moment (in 1476) when Pope Sixtus IV announced that indulgences could be purchased on behalf of another person – say a deceased relative who was assumed to be suffering in purgatory, and therefore lying beyond the reach of confession and absolution. In a continent of credulous and devout believers, this turned indulgences into a very big business. And, as with the US sub-prime mortgage market pre-2007, it got out of hand. By 1517, as Luther saw it, indulgences had become a racket in which a crass financial transaction substituted for the serious duty of real repentance. A couplet coined by a particularly enthusiastic indulgence-hawker captured this crudity nicely:

As soon as a coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.

The audacity of Luther’s 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences came from the fact that in attacking the theology underpinning the doctrine of purgatory they were also undermining the business model built upon it. In two consecutive theses, 20 and 21, for example, Luther set about attacking the very essence of papal authority. “When he [the pope] uses the words plenary [ie total] remission of all penalties,” Luther wrote, “he does not actually mean ‘all penalties’, but only those imposed by himself.” Therefore, continues thesis 21, “those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.”

This might not look like much to a modern reader, unfamiliar with the intricacies of 16th-century Catholicism, but it was the equivalent of calling the pope a liar. And in the Europe of 1517, that was fighting talk. People had been burned at the stake for less. In the ordinary course of events, the church would have squashed such a turbulent friar as one would a mosquito. All it would have required was a letter to his religious superior, followed by a kangaroo court in Rome, and that would be that.

But it didn’t happen. Instead, Luther escaped death, survived excommunication and went on to light the fire that consumed Christendom. How come? Historians cite two main reasons. The first is that Luther was lucky in that Frederick the Wise – the local bigwig who was one of the seven electors of the Holy Roman Emperor – protected him and indeed saved his life (protection that was continued by Frederick’s heirs and successors). The second is the printing press, which is what enabled Luther to “go viral”, as modern parlance has it.

Of course we’ve known for eons about the role of print in the Reformation. But it’s especially interesting to look back at the story in the light of what has happened to our own media ecosystem in the past few years. After all, we have lived through political earthquakes that were fuelled at least in part by new media, and we find ourselves contemplating what has happened with the same kind of “informed bewilderment” that must have afflicted Pope Leo X as he watched his pestilential priest become the most famous man in Germany.

An 1817 edition of Martin Luther’s 95 theses

What happened, in a nutshell, is that Luther understood the significance and utility of the new communication technology better than his adversaries. In that sense, he reminds me of Donald Trump, who sussed how to use Twitter and exploit the 24-hour news cycle better than anyone else. But whereas Trump contributed nothing to the communications technology that he exploited, Luther did.

His understanding of the new media ecosystem brought about by print has been expertly explored by the Reformation historian Andrew Pettegree in a brilliant book, Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation (Penguin, 2015). Unlike most scholars of his time, Luther was both interested in and knowledgable about the technology of printing; he knew the economics of the business, cared about the aesthetics and presentation of books and understood the importance of what we would now call building a brand.

He knew, for example, that his message would only spread if he gave printers texts that would be economical to print and easy to sell – unlike conventional scholarly books in the early decades of printing. Because paper was expensive, printing a standard scholarly tome required capital resources for buying and storing the necessary reams of paper. And because there was no developed market for distributing and marketing the result, many printers went bankrupt – which is why most printing and publishing was concentrated in large towns with established universities where at least some of the necessary infrastructure existed.

Although the original 95 theses were in Latin, as were most theological books of the period, Luther decided that he would write in German. In doing so he immediately expanded his potential market by orders of magnitude. He also developed a literary style that was, as Pettegree observes, “lucid, readable and to the point”. But his masterstroke was in enabling printers to make money by publishing his works. Because paper was expensive, he channelled his output into extended pamphlets that could be printed on one or two sheets of paper, suitably folded into eight or 16 pages at most.

The strategy worked. Within five years of posting his theses he was Europe’s most published author. A printed sermon or a commentary by Luther was a surefire seller, and appealingly inexpensive to produce. The nascent printing industry was quick to respond: Wittenberg, which had a solitary shambolic printer when Luther began, was soon home to a handful of presses, including one run by Germany’s most accomplished publisher, Moritz Goltz. Luther, proactive to a fault, took care to spread his work among all of these new publishing houses and was, Pettegree observes, “sufficiently popular to put bread on the table of publishers throughout Germany”. By the time Luther died in 1546, nearly 30 years after posting the 95 theses, this small town in Saxony had a publishing output that matched that of Germany’s biggest cities.

Luther was clearly a remarkable, complex individual – charismatic, divisive, inspiring, intense, gifted, musical, courageous, devout and lucky. He also had a very unattractive side – as seen most starkly in the misogyny and ferocious antisemitism with which his works are peppered. But I’ve always been fascinated by him, and as the 500th anniversary loomed and Trump rose to power on the back of our new media ecosystem, I fell to pondering whether there are lessons to be learned from the 95 theses and their astonishing aftermath.

One thing above all stands out from those theses. It is that if one is going to challenge an established power, then one needs to attack it on two fronts – its ideology (which in Luther’s time was its theology), and its business model. And the challenge should be articulated in a format that is appropriate to its time. Which led me to think about an analogous strategy in understanding digital technology and addressing the problems posed by the tech corporations that are now running amok in our networked world.

These are subjects that I’ve been thinking and writing about for decades – in two books, a weekly Observer column, innumerable seminars and lectures and a couple of academic research projects. Many years ago I wrote a history of the internet, motivated partly by annoyance at the ignorant condescension with which it was then viewed by the political and journalistic establishments of the time. “Don’t you think, dear boy,” said one grandee to me in the early 1990s, “that this internet thingy is just the citizens band [CB] radio de nos jours?”

“You poor sap,” I remember thinking, “you have no idea what’s coming down the track.”

Twenty-five years on, I now describe myself as a recovering utopian. When the internet first appeared I was dazzled by its empowering, enlightening, democratising potential. It’s difficult to imagine today the utopian visions that it conjured up in those of us who understood the technology and had access to it. We really thought that it would change the world, slipping the surly bonds of older power structures and bringing about a more open, democratic, networked future.

We were right about one thing, though: it did change the world, but not in the ways we expected. The old power structures woke up, reasserted themselves and got the technology under control. A new generation of corporate giants emerged, and came to wield enormous power. We watched as millions – and later billions – of people happily surrendered their personal data and online trails to be monetised by these companies. We grimaced as the people whose creativity we thought would be liberated instead turned the network into billion-channel TV and morphed into a new generation of couch-potatoes. We saw governments that had initially been caught napping by the internet build the most comprehensive surveillance machine in human history. And we wondered why so few of our fellow citizens seemed to be alarmed by the implications of all this – why the world was apparently sleepwalking into a nightmare. Why can’t people see what’s happening? And what would it take to make them care about it?

Why not, I thought, compose 95 theses about what has happened to our world, and post them not on a church door but on a website? Its URL is 95theses.co.uk and it will go live on 31 October, the morning of the anniversary. The format is simple: each thesis is a proposition about the tech world and the ecosystem it has spawned, followed by a brief discussion and recommendations for further reading. The website will be followed in due course by an ebook and – who knows? – perhaps eventually by a printed book. But at its heart is Luther’s great idea – that a thesis is the beginning, not the end, of an argument.

The door of Wittenberg castle church, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses.

John Naughton’s theses

No 19: The technical is political
This thesis challenges the contemporary assertion of the tech industry that it stands apart from the political system in which it exists and thrives. This delusion has deep roots – for example in the fact some of the dominant figures of the 1970s computer industry were influenced by 1960s “counterculture”, which was suspicious of, and hostile to, the US political and corporate system that had enmeshed the country in the Vietnam war. It found its wildest expression in John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

The idea that the tech industry exists, somehow, “outside” of society was always misconceived, even when the industry was in its infancy. After all, it was built on the back of massive public investment in defence electronics, networking and research conducted in corporate laboratories such as Bell Labs or consultancies such as BBN. But in an era where it’s clear that Google and Facebook have, unintentionally or otherwise, been influencing democratic politics and elections, it is positively delusional. We have reached the point where almost every “technological” issue posed by the five giant tech companies is also a political problem requiring political and possibly legislative responses. The technical has become political.

No 92: Facebook is many things, but a “community” it ain’t
One of the favourite phrases of Mark Zuckerberg is “the Facebook community”. Facebook is many things, but a community it is not. It’s a social network, which is something quite different. In a social network (online or off), people are connected by pre-existing personal relationships. Communities, on the other hand, are complex social systems because they consist of people from different walks of life who may have no personal connections at all. A good example is the English village where I live. I am friends with some villagers, and know my neighbours pretty well. But there are many others in the village whom I don’t know and with whom I may have little in common. But there’s no doubt that they and I are all members of the same community.

Online groups confirm the power of homophily – the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with others of similar ilk. Facebook provides a framework that contains innumerable homophilic groups. But it isn’t a community in any meaningful sense of the world.

Topics

Data is the new lifeblood of capitalism – don’t hand corporate America control

Data has become the world’s most important resource. Now Silicon Valley giants want to keep government from standing in the way of profits

wires

One hundred and sixty years ago, the first transatlantic telegram traveled from Britain to the United States along a rickety undersea wire. It consisted of 21 words – and took seventeen hours to arrive.

Today, the same trip takes as little as 60 milliseconds. A dense mesh of fiber-optic cables girdles the world, pumping vast quantities of information across the planet. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 543 terabits of data are flowing across borders every second. That’s the equivalent of roughly 13 million copies of the complete works of Shakespeare.

The velocity and the volume of global communication aren’t the only things that have changed. So has its economic significance. Telegrams were useful for businessmen. But data is nothing less than the lifeblood of global capitalism.

The flow of data now contributes more to world GDP than the flow of physical goods. In other words, there’s more money in moving information across borders than in moving soybeans and refrigerators.

This is a big shift – and one that has yet to fully sink in for most people. Corporate America, on the other hand, understands it well. Which is why the tech and financial industries are pushing hard for international agreements that prohibit governments from regulating these flows. The most recent example is Nafta: representatives from the US, Mexico, and Canada just concluded another round of talks on renegotiating the treaty. American companies are lobbying for changes that would deregulate data across the three countries.

The corporate crusade against data governance is only getting started. If it succeeds, the world’s most important resource will be entrusted to the private sector and the profit motive, and the rest of us will have even less power to participate in the decisions that most affect our lives.

Over the past year, a growing number of people have come to realize that data has a dark side. The information revolution has turned out to be something less than total liberation. The digital sphere is not intrinsically democratic; rather, what matters is who owns it and how it’s organized.

The digitization of everything has made this abundantly clear. As more of our lives are made into data, the companies that control that data have grown rich and powerful. It’s not merely that they know so much about us, from our favorite type of toilet paper to our favorite type of porn. It’s that they use what they know to inform algorithmic decisions that have a significant impact on society as a whole –decisions like what kind of news (if any) we consume, or how long we go to prison.

But the stakes are even higher. The emphasis on personal data has obscured the fact that data is not just personal – it’s commercial, industrial, financial. The reason that corporations are so concerned about who controls the packets that flow through the world’s fiber-optic cables is because a vast array of profit-making activities now depends on them.

The global circulation of data, then, is really about the global circulation of capital. And it has enormous consequences for the global organization of wealth and work.

Data flows enable employers in higher-wage countries to outsource more tasks to workers in lower-wage countries. They help firms coordinate complex supply chains that push manufacturing jobs to the places with the cheapest labor costs. They empower a handful of big companies to dominate markets and monopolize digital infrastructure all over the world.

For these reasons, countries may want to make rules about how information travels across their borders. But corporate America disagrees. Such laws would amount to “digital protectionism” – an irrational regression to a more bordered world. Innovation, efficiency, and prosperity would suffer.

So corporations are demanding international agreements that lock in the total liberalization of data flows. The Internet Association, a major lobby that represents Google, Facebook, and other tech giants, is one of the industry groups leading the effort to “modernize” Nafta by making it the gold standard for data deregulation.

According to the Internet Association, governments should be prohibited from requiring that certain kinds of data, such as sensitive personal information, be stored or processed in the country where it’s acquired. They should be banned from treating platforms like Facebook and Google as publishers and holding them responsible for the content that appears on their sites. They should be forbidden from requiring companies to disclose the secrets of their algorithms, such as the all-powerful Facebook News Feed. They should be prevented from regulating online services as public utilities, or imposing tariffs on digital trade.

The audacity of these demands is impressive. At a time of rising public concern about the power wielded by tech companies, those same companies want to sharply constrain our capacity to govern data in the public interest.

Of course, data governance isn’t always in the public interest. It often serves a different purpose: to protect a ruling regime. China, for instance, restricts data flows in order to help the government control the information available to its citizens and watch them more closely.

The Chinese regulations aren’t just about repression, however – they also play a valuable economic role. By building a fence around the Chinese internet, the government has nurtured a homegrown tech industry, in much the same way that restricting imports of manufactured goods can nurture a homegrown manufacturing industry. It’s hard to imagine that China would have a booming local tech sector, centered on big firms like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, without such measures.

The Chinese example is a useful one, because it shows that the main justification for data liberalization – that it will enrich the world as a whole – is false. For decades, the United States has been lecturing developing countries on the importance of free trade and free markets. Yet, as the economist Ha-Joon Chang has explained, nearly all of today’s rich countries became rich by doing the exact opposite: they used tariffs, subsidies, and other protectionist policies to promote their own industries. Indeed, for nearly a century, the United States was the most protectionist country in the world.

This isn’t to say that everyone can follow the Chinese model. Yet regulating data flows for the purposes of economic development is certainly a legitimate use of state power. And it represents just one of many reasons that governments may want to actually govern data, rather than surrendering it to investors.

Letting capital run wild across the globe hasn’t exactly produced the best of all possible worlds. It’s strange to think that letting data do the same would yield a different result.

Since you’re here …

… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.

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The digital hippies want to integrate life and work – but not in a good way Evgeny Morozov

Data firms such as the rapidly expanding WeWork hope to blur the line between home and office. That won’t be any help to staff

A man entering the WeWork co-operative co-working space in Washington, DC

The digital turn of contemporary capitalism, with its promise of instantaneous, constant communication, has done little to rid us of alienation. Our interlocutors are many, our entertainment is infinite, our pornography loads fast and arrives in high-definition – and yet our yearnings for authenticity and belonging, however misguided, do not seem to subside.

Beyond the easy fixes to our alienation – more Buddhism, mindfulness and internet detox camps – those in the digital avant-garde of capitalism have toyed with two solutions. Let’s call them the John Ruskin option and the De Tocqueville option. The former extended the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, with its celebration of craftsmanship and romantic, artisanal labour by Ruskin, William Morris and their associates, into the realm of 3D printers, laser cutters and computerised milling machines.

Makerspaces and fablabs were to be a refuge from the office, with workers finally seizing the means of production. “There is something unique about making physical things. These things are like little pieces of us and seem to embody portions of our souls,” mused Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop, a chain of mostly US makerspaces, in The Maker Movement Manifesto in 2014.

The De Tocqueville option hailed the use of digital tools to facilitate gatherings in the real world in order to reverse the trends described by Robert Putnam in his bestselling Bowling Alone. The idea was that, thanks to social networks, people would be able to find like-minded enthusiasts, creating a vibrant civil society à la De Tocqueville.

Meetup.com, started in the early 2000s to facilitate “face to face, peer to peer” meetings, pioneered the model. “We subvert hierarchy,” said its founders, declaring that members of formal organisations should not need permission to get together and talk. Inspired by Bowling Alone, their platform played an important role in mobilising Howard Dean’s grassroots campaign in the 2004 US presidential elections; it also helped launch the Five Star Movement in Italy, now a political party but a decade ago just a crowd of angry citizens in search for easy tools of social mobilisation.

How did these two options fare? The John Ruskin option has faced a major challenge today, the distinction between artisanship and gentrification is blurry. Makerspaces had their reinvigorating uses for cognitive workers who were exhausted by mind-numbing office jobs but they also angered those not lucky enough to have mind-numbing office jobs in the first place.

Look at La Casemate, a fablab in Grenoble in France, which was vandalised and burnt on last month. Anarchists claimed responsibility and issued a statement, decrying city managers who cared only about attracting “money-hungry startups” and geeks. The maker revolution predicted by Hatch is already devouring its own children: on 15 November, Techshop filed for bankruptcy.

What then of the De Tocqueville option? Here, it is more complex. At the end of November, Meetup.com was acquired by WeWork, a $20bn startup that blends big data and real estate to offer (in its own words) “space as a service” – the latest variation on “software as a service”, the staple of the modern technology industry.

Boasting investors from Goldman Sachs to Japan’s SoftBank – in August, it poured in $4.4bn – WeWork is more than a network of 170 buildings across 56 cities in 17 countries. Its valuation exceeds that of the largest publicly traded commercial real estate company – Boston Properties – and is several times higher than that of real estate groups with far greater square footage under management.

WeWork’s pitch is simple: as a technology company, its main asset is its data, not its properties and its rapidly expanding size allows it to extract and analyse data related to their use and under-use (“buildings are giant computers”, says its blog). Armed with the data, it can then offer tenants flexibility on space, furniture and leasing.

Its high valuation assumes that it can dominate the business of services related to space in general – for example, by using data to help clients redesign and manage their own offices. Its bet is that managing space and real estate will follow the path of cloud computing and become a service offered by just a handful of data-intensive platforms.

Buoyed by new cash, WeWork is expanding in many directions. It has launched living spaces, where members can rent flats above their workplace. It has launched a wellness centre. It has acquired a coding school, where its future members might learn to code. It has announced an elementary school that will treat students as “natural entrepreneurs”, thus allowing their busy parents to see more of their kids – at work.

Its main innovation, however, is in branding. Rare is a Silicon Valley company that does not claim humanitarian intentions. WeWork, however, is beyond competition. Its self-proclaimed mission is to “create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living”.

“Our valuation and size today are much more based on our energy and spirituality than on a multiple of revenue,” its co-founder, Adam Neumann, told Forbes. Neumann, who grew up partly on a kibbutz in Israel, is building something extraordinary: a hi-tech kibbutz but without the pesky, socialism-infused egalitarianism (“We are making a capitalist kibbutz,” he told the Israeli paper Haaretz).

WeWork’s utopian ambition is to leverage big data – not the egalitarianism of the kibbutz – to resolve the problems of the workplace and of modern life alike. Alienation, on this reading, is not an omnipresent feature of capitalism, but an easily correctable – by data of course – bug. And what better way to fix it than by having the non-working lives of workers dissolve into their working lives; the data-hungry capitalist kibbutz will then take care to greet you by name and wish you a happy birthday.

Eugen Miropolski, a WeWork executive, says that, whereas in the past, “the residents of urban areas were brought together in part through town halls, gatherings in taverns, cafes and open spaces to hash out the subjects of the day,” WeWork aspires to be “a place where people can come together, talk, discuss new ideas, and innovate in a collaborative way”.

Thus, he concludes, “real estate is just the platform for our community”. Everything else, from kindergartens to yoga salons, arrives on top, optimised by WeWork’s data geniuses in what amounts to the 21st-century equivalent of the company town, albeit with much subtler forms of social engineering. In WeWork’s future, the hastily privatised public space is returned to citizens. However, it comes back as a commercial service provided by a lavishly funded data company, not as a right. Meetup’s civil society will keep on talking, inside WeWork’s buildings. But the struggle against alienation will now consist of applying even more data analytics and nudging to the tortured souls of overworked cognitive workers, who, in escaping alienated workplaces in the comfort of makerspaces and face-to-face meetings, have discovered that the workplaces have colonised their non-work lives instead.

The pioneer of scientific management, Frederick Winslow Taylor, had to design elaborate ways of extracting the knowhow from factory workers; WeWork relies on ubiquitous, permanent and mostly invisible data extractivism that makes no distinction between work and non-work. While in the late 1960s some leftwing intellectuals warned of the emergence of the “social factory”, where Taylorist production first comes to transform and dominate the life beyond the factory but eventually falters as the work becomes cognitive, the WeWork model points to a different future: society is brought back inside today’s factory – the modern office – but on terms that reinforce rather than undermine many elements of the Taylorist paradigm.

That all of this is couched in the language of the hippy movement does not make the underlying processes any less Taylorist. With the takeover of Meetup by WeWork, the struggle against alienation, thus, moves into a new stage: the De Tocqueville option is out, the Hippy Taylorism option is in.

Since you’re here …

… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.

I appreciate there not being a paywall: it is more democratic for the media to be available for all and not a commodity to be purchased by a few. I’m happy to make a contribution so others with less means still have access to information.Thomasine F-R.

If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps fund it, our future would be much more secure. For as little as £1, you can support the Guardian – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.

Digital disruption: the role of tech entrepreneurs in improving healthcare

Join us for a panel discussion on technology in the NHS on Wednesday 7 February in London

Computers are part of the job for healthcare professionals.

Technology in the NHS is the bane of many healthcare professionals’ jobs. Clinicians have spoken about decrepit computer systems on hospital wards and not being able to access patient information at the right time.

Other sectors, such as the airline industry, banking and retail, are years ahead and incorporate the latest technology to make life easier for customers and employees while also protecting users’ data. The NHS, which uses one in 10 of the world’s pagers and still relies on fax machines, has yet to catch on to some of the more modern developments in technology.

So how do healthcare professionals who have grown up with technology at their fingertips find working in the NHS? What are they faced with in their jobs and how do archaic and creaking IT systems impact on patient care?

Who are the digital entrepreneurs trying to do something about the situation? What innovations are out there? And what challenges do people face trying to introduce them into the NHS?

Join us at the Guardian’s offices in London on 7 February to discuss these questions and more. The event is aimed at healthcare professionals and those with an interest in healthcare tech, and while it is free, please be aware that space is limited. If you’d like to attend, please fill in the form below. Those who have been successful will receive an email to confirm their place.

Programme

6.30pm-7pm: Arrival, registration, refreshments, networking

7pm-7.05pm: Chair’s welcome, Denis Campbell, health policy editor, the Guardian and the Observer

7.05pm-8pm: Panel discussion

Panellists

  • Harpreet Sood, associate chief clinical information officer for NHS England and a practising NHS doctor
  • Mahiben Maruthappu, London-based doctor and co-founder of Cera
  • Nadia Masood, junior doctor and Justice for Health campaigner
  • Neomi Bennet, registered nurse and chief executive, Neo-Innovations UK Ltd

8pm-8.15pm: Audience Q&A

8.15-8.20pm: Phil Jones, managing director, Brother UK

8.15pm-8.45pm: Networking

Registration for this event is now closed

Since you’re here …

… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.

I appreciate there not being a paywall: it is more democratic for the media to be available for all and not a commodity to be purchased by a few. I’m happy to make a contribution so others with less means still have access to information.Thomasine F-R.

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Data will change the world, and we must get its governance right

The chancellor’s announcement of a new centre for data ethics is welcome. But we must ensure that it has the power to address the ethical issues it identified

The campaign to stop killer robots has drawn attention to the dangers of autonomous weapons

Data, data everywhere – but will it make our lives better, or put us at risk? In recent months it has become clear that while the opportunities presented by ever-growing data are abundant, so too are the threats. That’s why we need better governance – a set of guiding principles as to how this new technology is used and developed – not least because misuse threatens to turn the public against such innovations.

Data breaches from companies including Uber and Morrisons have made headlines, but the ways in which corporations can use data legally, to develop artificial intelligence (AI) and pinpoint information for their own commercial uses, are less well publicised.

If that is what the market is developing, there is a very strong case for much stronger regulation and supervision. We need a code of ethics and governance, not simply for data protection, but to allow society to have a genuine say in how organisations are able to manipulate and utilise our data to their advantage, commercial, political or otherwise. It is, after all, our data, and protecting people must be the priority. Public assurance of the principles behind data legislation is key, and therefore communicating it in a way that people can understand is important. Serious work has been done on these issues, and I welcome the report on data governance recently produced by The British Academy and the Royal Society.

The report covers the context in which data governance needs to be set, and explains the ways in which society is changing and how data policy must take into account the risk of “data-related controversy” and history’s warning tales of how the “widespread adoption of new technologies can increase public anxiety, or result in major public controversy”. It also sets out what it calls principles for data governance, which are “needed to visibly shape all forms of data governance and ensure trustworthiness and trust in the management and use of data as a whole”. Visibility is key: it allows accountability and legitimises any governance laws introduced.

The British Academy and Royal Society consider that the overarching principle of data governance should be “the promotion of human flourishing”. While this may sound a touch idealistic to some, the points that they argue should underpin data governance are sound:

  • Protecting individual and collective rights and interests
  • Ensuring that trade-offs affected by data management and data use are made transparently, accountably and inclusively
  • Seek out good practices and learn from success and failure
  • Enhance existing democratic governance

The report also advocates a new body to steward the data landscape as a whole, rather than just in certain sectors and domains. This would be to support the delivery of data governance in accordance with the principles set out above, and set recommendations for improvement. It would be inclusive in its dialogue, and independent, while being connected to diverse communities.

And there are signs that the report’s suggestions have not gone unnoticed. The chancellor’s budget, rather overtaken by the ongoing Brexit shambles, proposed a new Centre for Data Ethics, a welcome development applauded by industry voice TechUK. However, the funding source for such a centre is not clear, and when I challenged the digital minister as to the relationship between this proposal and the Information Commissioner’s Office, his reply was vague. The government’s description of the proposed centre outlines “a world-first advisory body to enable and ensure safe, ethical innovation in artificial intelligence and data-driven technologies”, but does that have the strength or powers of governance that the data landscape currently needs? The new body could create further issues with its status in relation to the Information Commissioners Office, and it risks running into the problems of insufficient governance clout experienced in recent years by the ICO itself. We need to make sure that the diverse, inclusive and educational governance body envisaged by the Royal Society and British Academy come to fruition – and that it has the power to instigate change.

It is, then, yet to be seen what will be needed to accompany the Data Protection Bill currently making its way through parliament in order to protect citizens from data being used in a way that could cause public harm. As chair of the allparty parliamentary group on data analytics, I have heard from countless organisations campaigning for better civil protections – and from data-driven marketing organisations for whom data is like gold dust, and can be used to unlock business potential. It is unsurprising that the public feel anxious about the use to which their personal data may be put, and sceptical of data legislation, particularly regarding the recent media coverage of issues such as facial biometrics. Just this summer, Big Brother Watch reported that the Metropolitan police proposed trialling the use of cameras with facial recognition software to scan the faces in the crowds at Notting Hill Carnival, supposedly to alert them to people they feared might be out to make trouble. This AI software creates biometric algorithms of facial features. It may well be helpful to the police, but there hasn’t been any parliamentary debate about data being used in this way. The police aren’t doing anything wrong in the eyes of the law but, understandably, this kind of AI makes some people very uncomfortable. Quite apart from that, tech is not the future of proper policing, and current levels of inaccuracy make this approach risky. There are many false positive matches, and it means that innocent people are having biometrics created of their faces, without their permission.

We have seen before what happens when innovative technologies are promoted by commercial interests without understanding the need for the public to be fully involved in decisions about trade-offs between risks and benefits. With new technologies posing similarly difficult questions, we need the right political and ethical structures to help ensure that everyone benefits. As politicians, it is our duty to develop data governance that keeps people safe and well, before anything else. If big data is to really encourage “human flourishing” and improve both quality of life and of work, it needs to primarily protect the interests of people, not profit.

Daniel Zeichner is MP for Cambridge and chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Data Analytics.

Since you’re here …

… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.

I appreciate there not being a paywall: it is more democratic for the media to be available for all and not a commodity to be purchased by a few. I’m happy to make a contribution so others with less means still have access to information.Thomasine F-R.

If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps fund it, our future would be much more secure. For as little as £1, you can support the Guardian – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.