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Feb 3, 2018
The Daily Star
The digital dictatorship of data
Dima El Hassan
The World Economic Forum 2018, held in Davos Jan. 23-26 under the theme “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World,” gathered many political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.
“Will the future be human” was one of the interesting panels that discussed how the world is controlled today and where the future of humanity is heading. The speaker, Professor Yuval Harari, author of “Sapiens,” explained in depth how data is now the most important power of human history, past, present and future. Those who own the data are the ones who control the future of humanity and the future of life.
Harari explains that in the past, land was considered as the most important asset on the planet. Then, with the industrial revolution, machinery replaced land. And today data is the most important asset.
But data can be hacked. The dangerous part in this is that by hacking data we can hack human beings. Hacking today goes beyond what we buy, shop and eat to reach what is happening in our minds and bodies. We are referring to biometric data, which combined with computing power can identify individuals more than they identifies themselves.
Harari is posing a dangerous statement here: Those who control biometric data can know me better that I know myself, and thus can predict my desires and temptations, manipulate my feelings and thus govern my decisions.
What Harari is saying is that we have come to an era of dictatorship of data, or “digital dictatorship,” as he called it. When land was the most powerful asset, the leaders of the world were those few who had seized it, so that we had feudalism and aristocracy vs. the working class. When the machine governed and was owned by a few, we had capitalism and socialism, etc. Now we are facing a new kind of dictatorship that concentrates info and power in one place.
This is far more complex than at any other point in history since data, unlike land and machinery, is everywhere and nowhere. Its also fast-moving and can be copied as much as needed. This is indeed dangerous because now the elite who own the data are able not only to control it and build digital dictatorship around it but also to hack it in a way that they can “re-engineer” the future of life itself. When biology is tackled, we are dealing with the essence of human existence. We actually have the ability to alter the rules of life established 4 billions years ago, and replace evolution by natural selection with evolution by “intelligent design” as Harary calls it. Data about your life – not just your desires, your communication and your actions, but also you DNA, your blood, your body and brain – all do not belong to you but to some elite comprised of a few corporations.
So how are you going to regulate data? And are you willing to give up your life for your privacy? While we live in a dictatorship of data, we are undergoing the biggest dilemma of all times.
It is true that our lives’ data is controlled by a few who are not God; a few who are humans; a few who may be good or bad; a few who are not exempt from errors. But errors here cost our lives and our functioning.
It is true we don’t have privacy anymore, and it is true that my choices may now be manipulated.
But at the same time, my life is saved due to the power of data. My family and friends abroad are more connected and communicated with each other because of the power of data. I see economies of nations and the rise and fall of empires due to the power of data. Many problems in our lives are thus solved thanks to data, whether at the micro or macro levels.
I say yes, the data is the most dangerous asset in human history, but also acknowledge that human beings are still powerful enough to control it. Nevertheless, to face the elite who own the power of data, you as individual can at any time switch the power on or off.
Dima El Hassan is director of Programs at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 31, 2018, on page 3.
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