What is Ours is Only Ours to Give

by Maria on May 4, 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson’s books are how I think about the future. I’m not exaggerating when I say they’re how I manage to think about it at all. They provide much of the temporal and political context in which I do my work, which is to say, they educate me and let me know I’m not alone. Future uses of data and networks are a tiny part of The Ministry for the Future (TMFTF), just as tech policy only counts, now, insofar as it serves our species-wide effort to survive and perhaps flourish. TMFTF does some thinking on how network and information technology – specifically, social media and blockchain – can do the genuinely liberatory work they’ve long been hailed as making possible. I’ve worked in tech policy since the late nineties and will talk mostly in this piece about ways that might work sooner and better to get us to a desirable tech future, and one that gets less in the way of dealing with climate crisis. (I use ‘climate crisis’ as shorthand for the cluster of anthropogenic extinction events described in TMFTF.)

About blockchain and the future; yes, there are some nice, decentralized uses this methodology can be put to, particularly in potentially transparent registration of ownership of many kinds of asset. But the genuine use cases are narrow and, to me, the projected application of this technology in TMFTF to secure a currency that’s independent of states and generates good works seems not massively more revealing than observing that some people will also use more e-bikes in the future. Blockchain’s really not a core technology / methodology, and focusing on it means missing the real work needed to change how we do tech. Most of my piece aims to show how, without the distortion field of ‘we’ll just blockchain our way out of this’, we’ve already started the tricky, collaborative re-structuring of the current tech ecosystem. In the meantime, I can’t help thinking the ‘blockchain bro’ solutionism within tech mirrors the ‘adaptation through innovation’ discourse at the edge of many climate discussions.

Right now, most of the blockchain mining in the world happens in China, where provinces with the cheapest energy set up mining operations to do the ‘proof of work’ calculations that the dominant paradigm of blockchain requires. Factories that ostensibly make other things now acquire significant computing hardware and dedicate energy in order to, essentially, print money that’s then stored offshore. A recent study shows that 40% of China’s mostly bitcoin mining is powered by coal-burning. We also already know that non-blockchain server farms in cheap energy countries consume so much energy they distort national grids, and throw off huge amounts of heat that then need cooling for the servers to operate, creating a vicious cycle of energy consumption. All to say, I don’t see how a global blockchain currency as envisaged in TMFTF can be a good thing. Best possible case scenario; it uses mostly renewable energy to generate the proofs of work, displacing other, better uses for that energy. Worst case; it puts more zeroes on the end of the total carbon emissions we currently dedicate to computing.

I didn’t spot anything in the novel about how or even if the carbon produced by the pointless computation for the new currency would be mitigated. Maybe the implicit explanation is that in a future where social media gets fixed, and the energy-intensive, pointless computation of adtech lessens, we’ll be able to hold our noses about the energy-intensive, pointless computation of proof-of-work-based blockchain? Every year, blockchain’s country-sized amount of energy consumption increases. It’s Sweden-sized, now. I’m unconvinced by the, as yet, patchy research on environmental mitigation of blockchain. Proof of work in the current, dominant paradigm is not an acceptable way to secure the blockchain today, let alone when carbon will consistently breach 400 parts per million.

I know my concern with blockchain computation and CO2 emissions is a pretty common observation about TMFTF, and would be glad to see a solution to that in the world of the novel, or elsewhere. Humans waste energy in many and profligate ways, of course, but, in climate terms, the dominant form of blockchain is utterly obscene. If TMFTF’s assumption is just that, thanks to the carbon coin’s broader impacts, the net amount of carbon emissions will be lower over time, well, I don’t think Frank May would be happy. He might have to take up a gun and find another clever Irish woman to kidnap and terrorise.

Cards on table; I’m allergic to blockchain. I was briefly involved in a project to replace part of the current, multi-stakeholder Internet architecture with a closed, proprietary blockchain ‘solution’. The designers and backers of that project believed states would collapse within a decade and no longer be able to backstop core technical functions. Call me crazy, but if the governance crisis is that imminent, I’d rather put the time and resources into saving democracy. So yes, I’m now quite hostile to the starting premises of the many cultists determined for the world to give them blockchain-sized problems that make them the hero. I’m a little surprised to see tech solutionism resurface here – KSR is a much better novelist than that, as shown by his comic dispatching of New York 2140’s naïve but adorable coders, Mutt and Jeff, to a box under the Hudson river.

Happily, here in 2021, the necessary structural changes to how we use the Internet and related technologies are both more urgent and more amenable to cooperative and commons-based approaches than TMFTF envisions.

Let’s talk about social media functionality and how its current, virulently diseased business model might be amputated. In TMFTF, the specific problem posed by social media and solved by the AI adept, Janus Athena, is not spelled out in his scheme to supplant it with an alternative dominant platform. It’s simply implicit that social media can do good work if cut free of the abusive, predatory, American firms who use it as the lure for an adtech economy unmoored from real value or social purpose.

Superficially, I’m fine with that. Social media as currently construed is terrible in truly nonlinear ways, acting as both metaphor and amplifier for the worst of late capitalism. But this doesn’t get us far enough in a near-future where we’re figuring out and implementing radical and essential change. Freeing people from Facebook etc. is presented largely as an opportunity to create a commons that also gets individuals generating carbon coin to be spent on good projects. All well and good, but – a bit like with blockchain – this feels like a truncated problem statement contorted into just the right shape for the technological solution on hand. Just as TMFTF doesn’t have much to say about how hard-right, populist authoritarianism is deliberately wrecking intra-national capacity for the regional and global coordination needed to address climate crisis, it doesn’t seem to get how the vicious circle of hard right plus social media is hollowing out the capacity of states to fulfil the social contract that makes democracy possible.

That’s why we need to destroy Big Tech, not just because doing so might provide an (anti)-business model for emergent forms of technology-amplified cooperation. US social media companies’ business model is directly preventing people from understanding the climate crisis, and from forming the coalitions needed to work on it. It’s destroying the necessary structures of feeling and political institutions we need to get civilization through the eye of the needle that is this century. That is the problem statement. Understanding what we’re up against provides the necessary urgency and will to act radically to destroy how we currently ‘Internet’.

I know tech policy pretty well, and this absolute dumpster fire of a policy area isn’t just a cool new place to build a blockchain-based commons, but a hard-right haven of male libertarians asset-stripping the social democratic state to build global monopolies that re-run nineteenth century colonialism, but bigger.

I get that hegemony is fractal. And the Gibsonian ‘jackpot’ is self-reinforcing. Every policy area that needs to be fixed to support the work on climate crisis turns out itself to conceal a myriad of hard problems, each one both enacting and entrenching in miniature the planetary clusterfuck.


The problem-statement matters because it determines who you invite to the table to fix it. And, crucially, who you do not.

We don’t need blockchain to fix social media. It’s a pointless distraction that centres the worldview of the very tech bros who created the platforms, with its narrow understanding of the possibilities for change . We need data portability, technical interoperability and the forcible break-up of dominant platforms. We don’t particularly need quantum encryption to secure our data – basic information security practices and currently available strong encryption will easily do it. To change incentives so that personal data is treated with appropriate care, we need criminal penalties for the Facebook executives who left vulnerable half a billion people’s personal data, unleashing a lifetime of phishing attacks, and who now point to an FTC deal indemnifying them from liability because our phone numbers and unchangeable dates of birth are “old” data.

And, this isn’t mentioned in TMFTF, probably as, to most people, only the visible application layer of the network is ‘the Internet’, but to secure access to a non-predatory form of Internet use, we need to coercively prevent consumer-facing monopolies from providing Internet infrastructure all the way up and down the technological stack. Just as regulators separated infrastructure from value-added services to prevent old-school telcos from building proprietary, command and control, in-house Internets back in the 1990s, they now need to avulse the rotten meat of adtech social media from the backbone of network connectivity.

This isn’t a criticism of TMFTF/KSR – the novel is vast and delightful, and utterly orchestral in how it both stimulates and soothes my inner policy wonk – but most people don’t seem to understand that while social media is not the Internet, social media companies have taken over the ‘deep Internet’ in ways that foreclose innovative and liberatory possibilities for different uses and future generations. Facebook/Google have reached down from the web and into infrastructure provision, binding it together with their profoundly damaging adtech-driven radicalization engines to offer all the Internet connectivity you want, and all the rage that goes with it, as long as you remain trapped in their open prisons. Both companies – and Amazon, who through back-end service provision now grip countries’ entire SME sectors – now occupy and are consolidating the entire Internet ‘stack’, from pipes / satellites / undersea cables to protocols / standards / proprietary APIs and all the way to trade associations / regulators / parliaments. These companies dominate most open standards and protocol development, both through numbers of employees who dominate working groups, and market power to determine standards adoption or rejection. The open standards process is nominally open, but increasingly, if a new standard or protocol doesn’t fit big tech’s business model, it either doesn’t happen or never gets implemented. At the same time, these companies use the open processes as a rubber-stamp for their own, all-but-proprietary standards. Back up the stack to the apps layer, and especially in developing and middle income countries, you cannot build or do anything Internet-connected at any level unless it’s contributing to the big US firms’ business model. (Apple occupies a different, troubling, but not equally catastrophic niche in the Internet ecosystem.)

This global domination of the underlying communications architecture isn’t just a problem for us, now. It’s a one-way valve for the technological imaginary that blocks and dissolves future and truly disruptive innovation, or absorbs it into its own (and I thank KSR for this term) mega-structure.

We still have options, and maybe just enough time. I think of my life’s work in pretty humble terms. It’s not trying to build the one big thing that will save us, but trying to ensure just enough technological openness and possibility – or even simply the idea or memory of them – pass on to future technologists and dreamers so they can build good, new, and genuinely different things. (I’ve written about how decentering Western heroes and their inevitable, red pill death-drive is central to the work and hope for what comes next.)

How the platforms are poisoning political institutions is entwined with adtech and its cross-subsidisation of connectivity, so we need first to separate connectivity from social media / adtech. We need to make Internet access either a pure utility – with companies that provide it barred from interfering or inserting themselves into how it is used – or, better still, a public good provided free, out of general taxation. Think of Internet connectivity as either like water – the water company doesn’t get to insert nano-particles in your supply that talk to you about how you wash your face and then sell that conversation to a military contractor or a face-cream company – or like education – a public good and literal human right that, secondarily, everyone benefits from everyone else having. We need to stop the companies built on spying on everyone, laundering their information, supplanting state functions and dodging taxes from redesigning the entire, global, physical communications infrastructure in ways that lock in their dominance for the next century. A sprinkling of blockchain over the visible parts of a suborned infrastructure in twenty years time is not going to do it.

I’m not saying TMFTF needs to go into all this – of course it doesn’t – but we do, here, in our lives that are currently running their courses in the oligopoly-captured economies US Big Tech has converted into a new kind of global feudalism. (By the by, I’ve also written about China’s no less corrosive version of the Internet and how it’s marketed to developing and middle income countries as “Autocracy-as-a-Service”.) The problem with US Big Tech is bigger, deeper – iceberg-dimensioned, you might say – and not even remotely blockchain-sized or shaped. Leslie Daigle has described the consolidation of the entire Internet stack under the hierarchical and totalizing business models of US tech firms as “climate change for the Internet’. If we don’t fix it, I personally do not believe we will be able to fix much else. That’s why my life’s work is helping to fix it. And by fix, I mean destroy.

Some good stuff about how we do this happens in the short silences when MFTF draws breath to speak; in the important bits necessarily skipped over.

One such is when Janus Athena says, in the planning stages of his new social media initiative, YourLock;

“The AI group is making open source instruments that mimic the functions of all the big social media sites.”

And then a little later, when YourLock soft-launches;

“.. you could transfer everything going on in the rest of your internet life into a single account on YourLock”.

First, the genuinely revolutionary thing; how we exfiltrate our data from the rapacious companies who say they own it. You can do that today; file a subject access request (SAR) under existing data protection law (if you live in a country/state with such a law). However, you may just get a huge pile of CDs or an enormous .xml or .json with many gigabytes of data. This is both over-kill intended to deter you from asking, and also simply the amount of data generated about you by that platform and other sources with which it colludes. The good stuff is in there, but obscured by rubbish. As Andreas Guadamuz said about his recent Spotify SAR, a huge amount is inferences about behaviour and personality driven by third-party data, much of it erroneous.

We need to be able to export what the predatory social media companies call “the social graph”. The graph is a somewhat under-determined and evolving set of data that includes our name, date of birth, phone number, etc. but, crucially, is our links to the people we interact with or know, plus how we like to interact with them – probably including the content of those interactions – plus some other artefacts of our preferences and interests.

Early-ish efforts to make this stuff usable elsewhere focused just on portability –getting a copy of the data off the platform. I understand that a now possibly defunct Google internal working group called itself the Data Liberation Front. (Everywhere there are good people trying to do good work.) More recently, the push has been to appreciate the dynamic, evolving nature of the data that makes up the social graph, and make it usable and accessible on multiple platforms, more or less simultaneously. (To really get the challenge of moving it around in ways that maintain its essential form, think of this information not as a cross-section from an MRI but rather a small, wriggling, furry animal.) The European Commission has prepared to legislate to require interoperability, and it calls being able to use your data wherever and whenever you like “multi-homing”. (Not many other people like this term, but it describes something important – the ability for people to move easily between platforms, bringing their small furry animals with them.) Legislative efforts include the US (2019’s draft Access Act) and the European Union (The Digital Markets Act). However, a leaked version of the most recent draft of the Digital Markets Act shows that the corporate lobbyists have gutted the requirements for real, usable interoperability.

What TMFTF gets wrong about its alternative social media model is 1) that it assumes social media can easily be sundered from adtech and the underlying architecture it subsidizes, and 2) it posits a future where one smart tech person and their team designs an elaborate new system based on a single, mammoth-sized competitor to Facebook, etc. The single alternative platform is absolutely not the Facebook-killer.

What keeps Facebook up at night, and its lobbyists busy donating to Republican voter suppression funds, is the fear that real interoperability will enable dozens or even thousands of competitors. A former FB executive and long-standing friend of Zuckerberg emailed him in 2012 (page 31) to say “The number one threat to Facebook is not another scaled social network, it is the fracturing of information / death by a thousand small vertical apps which are loosely integrated together.” He thought that was just a risk of FB’s API (application programming interface) strategy at that point. He did not remotely anticipate powerful regulators making real interoperability obligatory. This is why we must hold the European Commission’s feet to the fire on the Digital Markets Act.

(I thought there would be room to get into protocols versus/plus APIs in this piece, but here we are, 3,000 words in. If you read one thing, make it Ian Brown on competition and interoperability, or Cory Doctorow and Bennett Cyphers on mitigation for interoperability’s privacy issues, both real and confected.)

Ensuring real interoperability is at least a medium problem, if not quite a hard one. Interoperability would mean I could tailor and export the good stuff from Facebook or Twitter – primarily, my relationships – and plug them in elsewhere. I would also be able to move back and forth if I wanted, maybe returning to the big platforms for my public-facing work. Crucially, as a woman online, I could bring and update my block-lists wherever I go. (I can’t go into detail as it was client work, but I’ve briefly encountered really excellent Big Tech technical people working on precisely that issue. Everywhere there are good people, etc. Just, really, really not their lobbyists.)

With comprehensive, user-friendly and dynamic interoperability, we would finally have a real choice about the platforms we use. (There might soon be so many of them we’d no longer call them platforms – which bring to mind deep-sea oil-drilling operations – but maybe docks or pontoons, because using social media could be like swimming between the docks scattered around a Zurich or Geneva lake on a summer evening.) With all that choice would come new offerings that the current, implicitly state-sanctioned monopoly under-provides. Few would choose the maddening open spaces with their engagement (let’s be honest, ‘enragement’) metrics. We would also have to figure out new and varied funding methods, but in a world where vast profits aren’t hoarded on offshore islands and states aren’t starved of tax revenues, the numbers would start to look different. It could be really wonderful.

Charlotte Jee recently wrote a lovely fictional intro to a piece on a “feminist Internet” that crystallized something I can’t quite believe I never saw before; if girls, women and non-binary people really got to choose where they spent their time online, we would never choose to be corralled into the hostile, dangerous spaces that endanger us and make us feel so, so bad. It’s obvious when you think about it. The current platforms are perfectly designed for misogyny and drive literally countless women from public life, or dissuade them from entering it. Online abuse, doxing, blue-tick dogpiling, pro-stalking and rape-enabling ‘features’ (like Strava broadcasting runners’ names and routes, or Slack’s recent direct-messaging fiasco) only happen because we are herded into a quasi-public sphere where we don’t make the rules and have literally nowhere else to go.

This work is urgent. Tech policy, like everything else, needs to serve and enable our direct responses to climate crisis. Time and again, the toxic predation of winner-takes-all monopolies, founded and run by tech bros, enable, amplify and are fundamentally conjoined with individual acts of male predation and abuse. Code is law, and that code is misogyny. We won’t get the non-patriarchal responses that TMFTF rightly describes as essential, if we permit another decade of violent regression on gender. All the people that would have the ideas, develop the projects and form the networks that our species needs are being driven out, now. We don’t have decades more of human potential to burn.

An aside on violent misogyny, its omnipresence in the lives of women, girls and the nonbinary, and the fictional uses to which it is put; I see what KSR is wanting to do with Mary Murphy and Frank May, and the place their story ends is touching and beautiful, with shards of biting truth. But I am not here for the idea that the moment of revelation, the big radicalizing reveal that arrives in the middle of a successful, female politician’s professional life is delivered at the point of a gun. This is the revenge fantasy of every enraged and entitled man who has ever threatened (and worse) a woman in public and quasi-public life, to force her to mend her errant ways.

Does Mary Murphy need to be radicalized? Is this the best or only way to do it?

Because I am radicalized by the fact of male violence every. Single. Day. Of. My. Life.

TMFTF does not get to be sanguine about the impact of violent abduction and the omnipresent threat of rape and murder, just because a female character can be said to have learned a valuable lesson – no more than a judge at a sentencing hearing gets to impose a lighter, noncustodial sentence because the violated woman somehow managed to put her life back together. We live under patriarchy, many of us mortally injured by it. Not all good things are in the gift of all people.

I love that a main character is an Irish woman and a political technocrat to boot. Of course I do! And I can confirm the peculiar agency in international policy circles that goes with being white, English-speaking, not from a threatening or unpopular country, and, yes, apparently able to deliver tough messages in-person because of some underlying charm. In my experience, a Mary Murphy would spend at least half her time managing up, to limit interference and ensure renewal of her term, but I get that’s not the book’s focus.

(I do see that the abduction by Frank May is to be the hinge around which Mary Murphy’s story turns. But look, she’s a fictional former Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs. Half her previous job would have been the Northern Ireland peace process, and involve dealing with current and former terrorists, managing international legal cases on the British military’s systematic use of torture, and checking under her own car for explosive devices. Mary Murphy should need no introduction to the harsh reality of the end justifying the means. On a lighter note, my Irish diplomat sister observes that a slightly more true to life Mary Murphy would frequently irritate her Zurich staff in public speeches as, yet again, she quotes Seamus Heaney’s poetry and mistily anticipates the possibility that, this time, hope and history rhyme.)

Back to Janus Athena’s grand scheme.

TMFTF tells us; “The AI group is making open source instruments that mimic the functions of all the big social media sites.” For this to be possible – or for a vast archipelago of interoperable social media islands to emerge – we’ll also need to ensure that someone like Janus Athena can even exist, i.e. that someone with their talent has the training and professional opportunities to fully develop to the point where they can conceive and build a new paradigm.

Right now, fewer than half a dozen tech firms concentrate huge resources on a small number of global post-graduate AI programmes around the world. They directly and indirectly influence the training and content of those programmes, especially through access to data-sets. Compliance of senior academics is easy to gain, however they individually rationalise it. The mini-industry of AI ‘ethics’ – as opposed to AI regulation – speaks to that. The biggest tech firms buy each successive cohort of top graduates to absorb into their own structures or simply prevent from going elsewhere. The firms complain about a global skills shortage in AI, but in practice seem content to ensure – strange, this – the dominance of a tiny number of resource and prestige-sucking programmes whose graduates they hire. The firms also work to undermine critical research in computer science, social science and the liberal arts.

So, if we want diverse, cohorts of independently-minded AI specialists like Janus Athena to exist, we’ll need to reverse the capture of AI programmes at global brand-name universities by US tech firms.

Finally, the data commons. TMFTF celebrates everywhere the possibility for cooperative structures and commons to emerge, bottom-up. I particularly enjoyed the California water commons, with its quiet nod to Elinor Ostrom’s original post-graduate research on emergent cooperation between county water-boards. In the technology-sphere, the novel envisages a data commons that underlies a reformed social media with a dominant, carbon coin-generating platform. This was thrilling to read about, though the data commons envisaged seems overly dependent on the idea of data as property, and unaware of how data-as-property drives inequality because – surprise – some people’s data is judged more valuable in the market than others’. In my policy world, the libertarian pedigree of personal data as private property idea tends to strongly determine the roles and goals of initiatives to self-organize around data-ownership. Freedom of contract is the one true freedom, etc. etc. I’ve probably spent too much time standing around at receptions, drinking bad white wine to get me through yet another twenty-eight year old from the Cato Institute droning about how the completely new paradigm of data-ownership is going to ‘fix privacy’. (These guys are a menace. Even in Brussels!)

I worked on a recent project to sketch out for a centre-right German think-tank how a European data commons might work. I tried to steer it away from property rights and towards what you’d get if you started with the commons and then worked back to what data could be harnessed, and to which collective purposes. This is eminently do-able, and pushes you towards two distinct areas; groups of people who are served poorly or not at all by current data regimes, and existing cooperatives, unions and mutual societies who could collect and process their members’ data to improve collective bargaining, or licence access to it to generate revenue and boost affiliate membership. Viewing personal data as a collective asset points towards all sorts of currently under-provided public goods (I briefly describe several, on p. 74 here – yes, oddly enough, this stuff got shoved into an annex).

When you ditch Janus Athena’s starting point that the least-worst thing to do with data is transfer its property rights so its rents can be reallocated to good causes, you realise there is a whole world of under-provided data-pools that will help solve big, collective problems. Real public access to energy usage data, realtime location data in urban management, indemnified and public-good data-donation in public health settings, in infectious but also rare and genetic diseases, and of course access to granular pay and employment data to end workplace information asymmetry – there is so much more we can do. We’re just blinded by the current paradigm of data as little more than a way for adtech to drive consumer purchasing.

The EU is working on explicitly strengthening and formalizing the legal space for data commons in Europe, and much data commons and cooperative work is being done elsewhere, building on existing legal rights of access and correction to data. (Some other countries, and a couple of US states including California, are also beginning to move.) Access to these pro-commons capabilities is still limited and non-intuitive, and undermined by supine data protection agencies, particularly the Irish one which provides a fig leaf of regulatory cover for US tech firms in Europe. But they’re a foundation we’re building on for a more open, equitable and non-adtech-based future. And from this start-point, I think we can get somewhere better than Janus Athena’s admittedly extremely fun but rather brittle scenario.

I want to leave the last word on this to one of my heroes, Abigail Echo-Hawk. I don’t know her; I just know of her work. Echo-Hawk is a member of one of the bands of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, and works in public health data in Seattle. She started off collecting data about violence against Native American women and girls in urban settings. The data wasn’t there, so nor were the needed policies and supports. She first went to community elders for permission and guidance, and the way she thinks about how – or if – we should use data completely changed how I now see it:

“Monetising what we see as sacred knowledge, our way of being – driving, walking – is sacred knowledge and the only people who should have any purview over that is our community. … What if we look at what the data could do for our community and how to achieve that? … We are gathering our data because we love our people, we want a better future for the next generations. What if all data was gathered for those reasons? What would it look like?”

There’s a way of thinking about data – and about how we use the linked technologies to connect, communicate and organise – that grows out of the seven generations view KSR talks about in TMFTF. It’s something that serves us, and which never stops being of us. It’s not an asset so much as a gift, but not all gifts can be given or received by all people. Once you start thinking of it this way, you can never go back.

Just as in climate policy, we’re not going to be saved by an AI genius, even one called after a two-faced god and a god of wisdom. The work is collective, it’s structural, and most of it happens offstage. But a book like TMFTF, with its kaleidoscopic and profoundly humane view of all the stuff we need to try, fail at and improve on, puts my policy area in its proper context. Everything we now do serves the work on climate. In tech, our job is mostly to fix (destroy) the current business models of the planetary information structures, because they currently make everything else harder. That’s my job, my life’s work, and it’s inexpressibly important to feel my shoulder is put to the wheel of that many-wheeled and almost infinitely shouldered vehicle we are collectively trying to push into the next century.

I hope my reservation about Mary Murphy’s motivation wasn’t unkind, because my abiding feeling for the Ministry for the Future and its author is gratitude, both for this novel and for New York 2140. Thank you for making it bearable to look at our future, see it for what it is, and still want to get there.



John Quiggin 05.05.21 at 3:43 am

This is great, Maria! It’s wonderful to see a serious alternative to magical invocation of blockchain. And that the Ministry for the Future is generating such discussion.


Maria 05.05.21 at 8:15 am

Thanks, John.

The first good news is we are already working on some of this stuff, albeit with the challenges and provisos above.

The second good news that there’s a good discussion amongst tech friends around the world on how we create a “Ministry for the Future – for Tech”.


Ray Corrigan 05.05.21 at 9:50 am

Absolutely terrific piece, Maria.

There are lots of quotable gems I’ll be repeating, if you don’t mind, at least to OU colleagues and students. “Code is law, and that code is misogyny” and racism and architectural discrimination of the poor and the marginalised of every shape and form.

I laughed out loud at “…yet another twenty-eight year old from the Cato Institute droning about how the completely new paradigm of data-ownership is going to ‘fix privacy’. (These guys are a menace. Even in Brussels!)”. Partly because a friend asked about a pitch on Dragon’s Den last week about a browser that was allegedly going to ‘fix privacy’ through data ownership and asked if I thought it was a good idea. I instantly launched into my ‘myth of data ownership’ and ‘snake oil sales’ and ‘power asymmetries’ rants and immediately lost my audience… because she is not steeped in tech or economic policy.

We need to keep doing the hard work on policy but get better at explaining the critical nature of this stuff to ordinary people, in ways that make them care and be prepared to get involved in working on the necessary fixes, in whatever form and capacity they can offer.


notGoodenough 05.05.21 at 10:53 am

Starting on a light note, I think my favourite analogy for bitcoin to date is “Imagine if keeping your car idling 24/7 produced solved Sudoku puzzles, which you could then trade for heroin”…

As it is “deadline season” again, I´m afraid I am unable to read the OPs and comment with the due care and attention deserved. On the other hand, as climate change is something of a professional and personal obsession, I cannot resist the urge to comment (borrowing from Wilde: “I can resist everything except temptation”). So, I would like to throw out a few brief points (probably not well explained, but hopefully not too time-wastey):

1) Linking well considered technological usage to climate change is, I think, analogous to things like recycling or turning off appliances when not in use. I believe it is fair to say none of this will “fix” climate change in and of themselves, but given that it is necessary to attack the problem on multiple fronts at the same time, it is important in the sense of getting people to act in a more sustainable and thoughtful fashion. Mitigation is, after all, important…

2) The point about the way the internet is conducive to the more toxic elements of society is also an important one (and, arguably, quite easy to extend to much of society in general). I think this provides a rather nice illustration of yet another way in which although much of the fundamental issues may be traced to class and the failures of capitalism (i.e. yet another example of the ways in which the system is fundamentally flawed), there are specific issues in the way in which people are being oppressed which may also be well-addressed by other progressive approaches (underscoring yet again the importance of an intersectional approach). The threat posed by companies and oligarchs controlling the discourse is both long-standing and considerable – in my view the internet (much like everything else) should be organised for the collective benefit of everyone, and not for the profit of a few. However, although this would go some way to mitigating what I believe to be an underlying cause, it is also necessary (arguably vital) to consider the often-unique challenges faced in specific instances (as, for example, in the case of indifference-to-reinforcement of rampant misogyny as highlighted here).

3) I think you made some good and fair points regarding Mary Murphy, and some of it provoked a rueful smile (as did your sister´s remark in the a-bit-too-accurate sense!).

4) While I think the importance of technological solutions should never be understated, I do tend to view them as palliative rather than curative. After all, I am under no illusions that my work in energy storage will save the world, but it might – at its best – help a bit. I will also confess to being a bit prejudiced regarding the utility of AI – I think it comes from having read so many proposals where “AI-led development” actually means “we will get someone to use Bayesian Analyses and Monte Carlo tree searches”, which I also find disappointing compared to Hollywood´s counterparts…

5) I genuinely very much appreciate the “data commons” approach you outline here. I cannot do this due justice, but “data both serves us and is of us” is something which resonates strongly with me. I think how we use our data and technologies says a lot about our societies, and reflects prevailing attitudes. I had not previously come across Abigail Echo-Hawk, and appreciate you drawing her to my attention – I shall have to read more, I think.

6) “Everything we now do serves the work on climate. In tech, our job is mostly to fix (destroy) the current business models of the planetary information structures, because they currently make everything else harder. That’s my job”. And it is a useful and important job – not only in and of itself, but also in the ways it supports everything else (I think it could help “bankrupt the merchants of doubt”, to coin a clumsy phrase).

In summary, I found this a thoughtful and thought-provoking post – thank you for writing it! I am very much enjoying the discussions springing up on CT…


Grace 05.08.21 at 1:35 am

Thank you so much for this wonderful essay. It was like a strong wind blowing back the hair from my face. I really appreciate the work you do, and I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to make clear some of these issues for those of us who are not in the tech policy space.

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