With a colleague of mine we’ve been pondering the futures of work for a while. We were thinking about how should we take into account the current crisis in our musings, when he exclaimed that we shouldn’t succumb to the allure of providing yet another “corona crystal ball piece”, as honestly, none of us knows how the future will shape up. Not in terms of work, nor in terms of society, its individual, or not when it comes to firms.
I agree. However, the main point of creating scenarios of potential futures is not about actually believing that any of them will come to pass. Instead, in picking out signals from what we are currently seeing, and constructing stories where they continue to create a certain type of a future is helpful in thinking about our actions today. The signals are dots that by themselves are just isolated observations, not necessarily ever aggregating into trends or trajectories, but when we connect the dots to potential trajectories, we may learn something.
Envisioning the trajectories that could coalesce helps us to evaluate whether some of the events and actions that now are incidental are things that we want to see routinized into trajectories that constitute a part of our post corona lives, or not. When we see what could happen if we let some things run their course is valuable, because then we can better choose our actions today: future never unfolds regardless of our actions, but because of them.
There are several areas where the choices we now make have long lasting societal implications. Do we choose the route of global collaboration in fighting the virus, or focus on ourselves? Do we save companies or rely on the markets of tomorrow to sort itself out? Do we listen to scholarly experts or the sentiments prolific in social media?
Some of these choices seem intuitively better than their alternatives, but the really tricky choices are such where the options cannot at a first glance be divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Most notably this pertains to the possibilities offered by digitalization. The advances in digital technologies come with a cornucopia of tradeoffs, where we have to choose between different bundles of outcomes, each bundle consisting of both desirable and undesirable outcomes.
One of the most critical choices in terms of both urgency and the scope of implications is the decision of utilizing available surveillance technologies in tracking the spread of the virus. Several countries are developing applications that when downloaded into mobile phones enable accessing the inbuilt location data of each mobile phone to see which other mobile phones have been in the vicinity of a mobile phone carried by an infected individual.
Creating, storing and emitting location data is one of the cornerstones of mobile devices, as without it they could not function, so that is not the choice we are facing. Instead, the questions are, to which actors do we grant the access to our location data, and how deeply do we allow the diverse types of our personal data be integrated? Unquestionably, allowing the integration of health and location data of an individual is a powerful weapon in fighting the spread of the virus. However, it is fallacy to think that once that has been accepted by policy-makers and access to such integrated data has been granted to firms necessary for creating the technological interfaces, the use of the said technologies would end when the crisis is over.
The point of no return?
The discussion of the privacy-personalization paradox has flourished for quite some time in both lay and academic spheres. At its simplest it means that with the current digital technologies it is possible to extract such data from the behavior of the individual that used to be considered personal, private. The paradox refers to a choice of whether we see more benefits in the personalized offerings than we value our privacy, as both cannot be had. Truthfully, from the perspective of an individual, the choice was made the moment we started utilizing the digital technologies making our lives easier. However, from the perspective of the firms and policy-makers there are still choices that can be made in defining the depth of personalization and breach of privacy.
The by itself seemingly incidental decision by the governments to support developing virus tracing mobile software can be the final crossing on our path towards a future where it is acceptable to extract and use our personal data in any which way that the ones with the technology choose. The virus tracking software will definitely save lives now. But it will further add to the power already harnessed by the companies capable of sourcing, accessing and processing data, erode the power of the governments (with the exception of China), not to mention limit the freedom of choice of each individual.
Are we ready to give up on individual privacy once and for all, in exchange for increased collective safety and increased individual comfort?