Different kinds of privacy, empowerment and autonomy

In an article in the Guardian, Professor Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland mooted the potential for Google to cleave in two, with one part dedicated to providing a regulated bank-like service for data.

Pentland directs the MIT Human Dynamics Lab and co-leads both the Big Data and the Personal Data and Privacy initiatives of the World Economic Forum, and I’m surprised how often his name crops up in my hi:project related research, yet I find it difficult to reconcile his observation here with his fluency in the power of decentralised networks:

Social physics strongly suggest that the [Adam Smith’s] invisible hand is more due to trust, cooperation and robustness properties of the person-to-person network of exchanges than it is due to any magic in the workings of the market. If we want to have a fair, stable society, we need to look to the network of exchanges between people, and not to market competition.

Pentland continues under the heading: How can we move from a market-centric to a human-centric society?

Social physics suggests that the first step is to focus on the flow of ideas rather than on the flow of wealth, since the flow of ideas is the source of both cultural norms and innovation. A focus on improving idea flow, rather than financial flows, will allow individuals to make better decisions and our society to develop more useful behavioural norms. A key insight from social physics is that it is critical that the flow and exchange of ideas be inclusive, because insufficiently diverse idea flow leads to rigid and insular societies, and insular communities often inflict terrible damage on weaker communities with whom they share resources.

Having written about influence flows in my 2011 book, I couldn’t agree more with this observation. I find myself wondering why then Pentland might resign himself to such a centralizing vista as a Google data bank? Is such continued centralisation so unavoidable? Are banks in the monetary sense so successful, so resistant to decentralisation, as to provide a valid model for data?

Apple’s news this month provides an interesting example for discussion.


Asked in the Guardian article whether Apple may be up for something similar, Pentland responds:

Apple is extraordinarily non-transparent and they would have potentially a lot of difficulty.

Earlier this month, Apple announced ResearchKit:

Medical researchers are doing some of the most important work in the world, and they’re committed to making life-changing discoveries that benefit us all. To help, we’ve created ResearchKit, an open source software framework that makes it easy for researchers and developers to create apps that could revolutionize medical studies, potentially transforming medicine forever.

In other words, Apple is transforming the iPhone and imminent Apple Watch into sources of real-time, continuous data streams for medical research. ResearchKit sits on the previously announced HealthKit:

HealthKit allows apps that provide health and fitness services to share their data with the new Health app and with each other. A user’s health information is stored in a centralised and secure location and the user decides which data should be shared with your app.

Apple is then ticking some of those important boxes. User decides what? Tick. User decides who? Tick. Secured and hidden from Apple’s eyes and ears? Tick. Now let’s run it by the trans-disciplinary perspectives of some hi:project members – in terms of quantified self, health data and the Internet of Things.

Philip Sheldrake is an Architect at hi-project, Managing Partner at Euler Partners and Board Director at TechUK.

This article first appeared on hi-project.org. Click here to read the full version.