The digital serf

As most of us know, Friedrich von Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom, first published in 1944, is primarily concerned with the damage to liberty done by central planning. Yet even at that time, when the war with Nazi Germany was not yet over, Hayek could not have foreseen the power digital computers would eventually put into the hands of central planners – particularly transnational planners.

Governments and international bureaucracies already make direct and indirect use of a wide range of computer models of varying complexity for exactly the reason Hayek was so concerned about – central planning. The problem is we don’t really know how far this has been pursued or how far it will be taken. The clues are there right enough, but scattered.

Economic models, climate models, social policy models, healthcare models, employment models, demographic models and so on and so on. Central planners need to understand the interactions of their policies and computer models, whatever their defects, are at least capable of performing this function.

A computer model of a complex process such as a climate, economy or social trend may or may not have much predictive value, but can at least indicate the interaction of key assumptions. The obvious attraction for policy-makers is that model assumptions may just as easily be model policies. Policy-driven predictions then become a built in bonus for the central planner as long as they reach far enough into the future to be untestable.

Even climate models test the interaction of assumptions reasonably well. The dishonesty behind their use is where model assumptions/policies are claimed to have predictive value. The other dishonesty is where climate modellers claim to be doing science.

Powerful international agencies such as the EU and UN already seem intent on a joined-up effort to define our lives in increasing detail. The bits and pieces are falling into place as detailed here at Orphans in numerous posts and it is not unreasonable to suppose the joined-up computer models will soon follow.

As they get their teeth into global governance, certain definitions and parameters to do with the pattern of our lives will have to be formulated, agreed and modelled as policies unfold.

  • Inputs – food, shelter, energy, healthcare.
  • Travel allowance – miles per year.
  • Education allowance – years full-time.
  • Disposal – dealing with the elderly

International agencies are likely, sooner or later, to define parameters such as these as key variables in computer models on which they will eventually come to rely for policy-making and contrived policy benefits. Two big clues here are climate science and health policies. In fact we may say with some degree of confidence that some limited models have been up and running for years, which is one reason why we are hectored so widely and in such fanatical detail on bogus climate and health issues.

Although there have been some moderately effective attacks on climate models, it is not easy to see where opposition to the undemocratic use of computer models will come from when central planners develop them. For one thing, we probably won’t know it’s happening in any detail.

Computer modelling as a tool to shape our lives is likely to be a largely covert activity as it is with climate models and personal databases. Unlike traditional policy documents, central planning models will be far too complex to be publishable and likely to sit on expensive hardware, rendering them inaccessible to those whose lives are digitally encoded within. Neither need they fall foul of data protection law as they won’t necessarily contain personal information.

The models within which digital serfs are designed and manipulated won’t be abandoned as tools of central planning, merely because they don’t make useful predictions of human behaviour, just as climate models have not been abandoned merely because the real climate won’t play ball.

The road to digital serfdom could be just as much a threat as central planning was to Hayek because they are essentially the same phenomenon.

7 comments for “The digital serf

  1. Sheila
    February 21, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Thanks for the interesting article. I reckon we’re looking at a “systems of systems” approach – from the global right down to individual citizens.

    IBM won’t be far away either.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smarter_Planet

    There is plenty of technical information out there but it is all a bit beyond me I’m afraid so I’ll put a link up to their “Using a system-of-systems approach to build a smarter planet” report :

    http://public.dhe.ibm.com/common/ssi/ecm/en/gbe03278usen/GBE03278USEN.PDF

    They are also working at local level where an ever-increasing amount of highly personal information for every citizen is being gathered and shared:

    http://www-03.ibm.com/press/uk/en/pressrelease/33994.wss

    • February 21, 2012 at 5:11 pm

      Many thanks for the links – I’ll follow them up.

  2. February 21, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    ” Two big clues here are climate science and health policies.”

    The latter being why I will not support giving the NHS any more of my data than they need…

    • February 21, 2012 at 2:53 pm

      Our NHS medical practice discouraged from doing just that. They don’t think NHS systems can be trusted with personal data.

      • February 21, 2012 at 4:15 pm

        My GP took a similar approach.

  3. Sigi
    February 21, 2012 at 3:32 pm
  4. February 21, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    The day of the virtual panopticon has arrived.

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