When the tech world goes to sh*t, I love to be the naïve optimist
My friends don’t know me as the glass-half-full guy in the group, but — according to the Economist — it comes out that I am.
The last thing I expected during my latest stint of volunteering work was to find myself to be the optimist among the people working with me. The story of how that happened is interesting, and worth sharing.
I‘m a data scientist and digital transformation consultant who — in his spare time — volunteers for DataKind and MyData. On both fronts this year I’ve had to take the inevitable diversion from my core focus —technology innovation enabled by open and shared data — to work on personal data and privacy matters instead.
At DataKind — a nonprofit that matches volunteer data science talent with social impact organisations that can’t afford it — I’ve led the group who is ensuring that the UK office is GDPR-compliant. We studied the regulation first, using a “book club” format, and then implemented the necessary changes.
With MyData — a young, global movement fostering the development of an healthy personal data economy — I’ve been supporting the preparation of the upcoming conference, produced the podcast (coming soon), and contributed to our forum. Shoulder to shoulder with other nobodies like me, but also academics, entrepreneurs, policymakers and activists, we’ve been discussing business models, regulation and, of course, the news, as the latest data breach comes up every other day.
Well, it happens that I am the one who says that GDPR is “quite easy”, the one who always tries to protect the little guy that — these days — is the data giants, or “the GAFA”. You didn’t expect that, right? It is so easy to blame them for anything. Everybody and their dogs are outraged. One must be out of their minds to take their sides. My wife hates me when I do it.
Why is that so?
— John Battelle
Entrepreneur, author, journalist and co-founder of Wired
My experience working in tech for so many years and across different countries suggests me that, most times, what I’m looking at is some form of Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” What we’re dealing with is not an evil plan for world domination, but any combination of these:
- Clumsiness: bad organisational processes, tastelessness or inexperience made so that the right people were not involved in decisions that caused privacy violations or arguable choices in using personal data in general, what many call today with the “breaches of trust” euphemism. I call them a “zuckerberg”, as in, “Oh, no, you’ve done a zuckerberg again!”
- Incompetence: often caused by software development mistakes or computer security breaches. When they stupidly attempt to hide them and pretend they never happened, I call them a “mayer”. Occasionally someone tries even profiting incidents, that is a “smith”. I will never get tired of reminding you how bad we all are at security in particular. There is no ethos that can save you from human error, and I am concerned by how little attention this side of the problem gets.
- Culture clash: when someone just doesn’t get it because they come from a different perception and understanding of what privacy means to someone else — there was no universal definition of privacy last time I checked. That’s when someone says: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” I call this a “schmidt”.
Of course some people are actually evil, but that is rare.
My views have been called “manichean, reductive, and naïve”, but I keep fighting, and I want to believe that most people and organisations, deep inside, are good. On the side of making sweet, sweet money, they also want to provide their users with fantastic services and user experience. I empathise with Mark Zuckerberg: I imagine him pierced by regret in seeing Facebook transformed into a vessel of evil, from the moment he wakes up in the morning, to when he goes to bed at night in his $7m Delores Heights mansion… and then I don’t feel sorry for him any more 😁.
Anyway, the last straw was today: in recounting the story of the GDPR book club, the Economist is concerned that my “optimism may fade if (my) book club is meeting to analyse the GDPR’s text for years to come.” Ok, I give up, I am the glass-half-full guy, then! When the tech world goes to sh*t, I love to be the naïve optimist.