I don’t really see any promises being made by Gates.
Simon Cohen

The problem with how you frame the discussion is that you assume that the only way we can do things competently, or inform policy and decision making, is by means of data: “without accurate data, nothing can be changed because we don’t really know what “is”.

You are also implicitly assuming a neutrality or relative objectivity of data sets, which would de-politicize decision making, vs “policy decisions [being] informed by ideology alone”.

Where I see ideology in the flashy big-data ad from the Gates Foundation, is in giving the collection of personal data by amazon and Netflix, as an example of how businesses, or the private sector, can improve our lives by changing the game of decision making and improve governance with data. Take the the difference between the model outlined by Melinda Gates’ argument, and the Canadian example you give.

The example you pose is a significantly different and healthier model; it’s a government with a relatively good democratic system, who has made a decision, not a foreign business — coming from the country who calls the shots through imperial foreign policy — trying to implement policy and teach governments and countries from the so called global south how to govern.

The latter model of policy and decision making would not have been acceptable 25 years ago, but has progressively been legitimized and normalized by the political and economic influence and neo-liberal discourse of Silicon Valley, in the last decade.

The relationship between Silicon Valley and governments, that this model is shaping, is one that is not primarily being implemented or advanced in the global south, but also in countries with leading positions and significant economies, as the UK. Take the most recent scandal of Google, who obtained unrestricted access to the data of the NHS, the British public National Health System, without any consent from the public or specific regulation.

This model, emblematically exemplified by Facebook’s Free Basics, reflects the very essence of the neo-liberal political and economic agenda of Silicon Valley. It is all about taking over large industries offering basic services such as transportation, communication, health, education, etc., and the functions of nation states. The power obtained through this expansive strategy is very significant, and relies heavily on de-regulation and the inability, but also active will to not regulate data and digital technology at a global level.

It’s a model that imposes a global data economy and treats data as a new strategic natural resource to compete for, and offering significant investment in infrastructure and providing free services to governments and users, is the strategy by which the neo-colonial appropriation and annexation of people’s — and nations — autonomy and rights, is carried out.

The minimum condition collection of data should be subject to, is not ownership of data and the privacy or anonymity provisions of data sets, it is the legitimacy—and legality—of the collection of data itself. This is the primary and fundamental issue in which countries, societies and communities have to stand and defend their sovereignty. A data sovereignty that defends the data of populations from neo-colonial appropriation by Silicon Valley, in exchange for free infrastructure and services, along with flimsy advice on how to govern.

The Gates Foundation’s big-data ad does make implicit promises of change, as it defends data as conditio sine qua non for political change and critique of cultural biases, and that the neutrality of data sets can overcome political differences and conflict in decision making, because data sets provide neutrality and objectivity. Proposing a new model of governance and decision-making is as ideological as it gets.

Truth is that data sets are as neutral as algorithms, and as objective as economics and statistics; yet it’s not a methodological discussion we need to have in order to simply adjust algorithms and data collection to populations, consumption, social processes, etc., in order to render decision making a matter of a de-politicized and merely technical rationality. The discussion we need to have is an epistemological and political one, which will ultimately render data sets and big-data as secondary and only useful at the service of political rationale, when it comes to governance and decision-making. We will not perfectly automate political decision-making and leave our problems to the flourishing AI and IoT business; it is on the contrary the rationale of political projects that has to appropriate technology.

Data is very useful, and technology will play a huge role in how we improve our lives, but first it must guarantee and follow the rules of the democratic game we already have in place, which firstly guarantees the autonomy of individuals, and empowers society as constitutive part of decision making — be it through open governments, direct participation, p2p and cooperative sharing models, etc. — vs empowering companies and rich individuals like Gates or Zuckerberg, to further diminish and erode our democratic rights and legislative processes, with which we establish the conditions we want to live under.

The establishing of the conditions by which we want to live is done collectively — individuals as users & consumers don’t concentrate political power — and thus on the basis of ideology and by the ways through which we are capable of defining, articulating and politicizing problems, not by data sets. Numbers and data will only matter as they serve particular political ends determined by society and democracies, but the political principle for using technology as a means for emancipation — as opposed to market and profit oriented “innovation” — is, and will always be, the collective of individuals, society, not corporations or large economic interests. In other words, democracy, not corporatocracy.

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