Sunday 19 May 2013

Shakespeare, Google and our new government

The world is now in the second phase of the web revolution. So says the political pollster Stephan Shakespeare in his report, An Independent Review of Public Sector Information.

In Phase 1, the revolutionary winners – Shakespeare's Robespierre heroes listed on p.5 of his report – rose to the top on the basis of the unprecedented ease of communication between suppliers and consumers:
Google, Ebay, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal, Yahoo, Microsoft, Twitter, Apple – the companies through which our daily lives are run ...
Now we're in the next revolutionary phase, he says (also p.5):
Phase 2 sees an equivalent leap, this time in the capacity to process and learn from data. Is that exciting? It couldn't be more exciting: from data we will get the cure for cancer as well as better hospitals; schools that adapt to children’s needs making them happier and smarter; better policing and safer homes; and of course jobs. Data allows us to adapt and improve public services and businesses and enhance our whole way of life, bringing economic growth, wide-ranging social benefits and improvements in how government works.
Shakespeare's theme is that, if only they're given enough of our personal data, then intelligent scientists can run our daily lives for us even more intimately than in Phase 1, the quality of government will improve and, what's more, the economy will grow.

Before we consider those propositions, let's quickly remind ourselves about some of Shakespeare's heroes:
  • Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal, Apple, et al, have, indeed, made a fortune and acquired enormous power often, it seems, beyond the reach of mere governments. That owes precisely nothing to Shakespeare or to the UK initiative he now advocates.
  • Apple relies on a brilliant combination of slave labour in the third world and adolescent fashion-consciousness in the first. Their popularity survived not only the slave labour and the high prices they charge, but also the revelation that their iPhones track your every move.
  • Enviably clever of them, PayPal act like a bank but they're not – most of the difficult know-your-customer work is done for them by real banks, on whose backs PayPal get a free ride, charging whatever commission and transaction fees they judge they can get away with.
  • Amazon has built a quasi-monopoly and now chisels its suppliers' margins in the same way the UK supermarkets are always accused of impoverishing farmers. At the same time, Amazon has started increasing the commission it requires from traders who rely on its digital floorspace to sell their wares.
  • That is common knowledge. Less widely appreciated is Amazon's dominant position in "cloud computing". Amazon Web Services already stores a lot of our data "in the cloud" where it is under their control, and seeks through predatory pricing to gain control of a lot more.
  • Google and Facebook entered Phase 2 of the revolution years before Shakespeare drew our attention to it. They make their money by selling all the personal information we users of their services give them for free to marketing companies, see for example Martin Sorrell: if you don’t eat your children, someone else will. They are forever facing government enquiries in Europe and the US into their unsatisfactory privacy policies. You can get a hollow laugh out of the fact that they don't always understand those privacy policies themselves. But no other comfort.
  • Google's wings were not even clipped when it was revealed that they had "accidentally" collected information about all our WiFi networks while filming the entire country for their StreetView product. This "accident" carried on for years, all over the world. The whole point about Google is that they don't make mistakes.
  • Most of Shakespeare's heroes make microscopic corporation tax payments to the countries they profit from, see for example GDS and their friends, where there are 47 links for you to follow by way of evidence to support that statement.
"Is that exciting? It couldn't be more exciting ...". We may all join in Shakespeare's admiration of red-blooded capitalism in action. But in what way do these heroes – these latter-day pied pipers of Hamelin – demonstrate, as Shakespeare suggests, "improvements in how government works"?

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