The fundamentals of an ethical information economy: thoughts about the future

How would you like to be paid for allowing firms to use the information you’ve disclosed to them? Each payment would be no more than a nano-royalty, but these could still add up to a worthwhile amount over time. That’s the vision put forward by Jaron Lanier, a groundbreaking computer scientist, in his new book ‘Who owns the future?’

I’m basing much of this post on a review of his book in The Guardian (the book was published yesterday). Lanier argues that in an economy in which information is king, we’ve ended up donating large amounts of extremely lucrative information in exchange for ‘free’ admission into social networks. In an economy increasingly predicated on data flow, this has put a disproportionate amount of economic power in the hands of a few network owners.

While we benefit from access to those social networks, the overall flow of value is largely one way. It starts to resemble a ‘feudal system of financial gains’. That apparent sense of free access  and increased transparency turns out to have been paid for by a loss of fairness and security.

So what is Lanier’s vision for the future? He presents a vision of an information economy in which participants achieve ‘economic dignity’ by being proportionally compensated for all their contributions to those massive clusters of big data circulating around digital networks. His emphasis on provenance (in other words, the recording of where value originates) is fundamental to that information economy being an ethical one.

Lanier sees digital economies operating on the principle that ‘information is people in disguise’. This idea emphasises that information is not a neutral, boundless resource to be exploited, but is instead morally inextricable from the humans who supply it.

While I agree that provenance is an important aspect of an ethical information economy, I would have emphasised the need for consent as well. That however is much more difficult to track through an information economy – much more so than all those nano-royalties. Yet without it, we could be in the sometime uncomfortable situation of receiving payment for unacceptable, as well as acceptable, uses of our data. If privacy could be secured by pricing your personal data prohibitively, could consent be controlled in much the same way?

The questions and horizons offered by Lanier are just the sort of innovative thinking that the insurance market needs to absorb when considering the long term implications of information technologies. Telematics and motor insurance is just the tip of the iceberg. Lurking on the horizon are even greater implications for the life and health markets. I foresee revolutionary times ahead.

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