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Data Dictatorships: The Arms Race to Hack Humankind (borjamoya.com)
126 points by borjamoya on Nov 1, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments

People make the mistake of assuming that a more assertive authoritarian state means a more confident authoritarian state, when the inverse is more often the case.

China's growth is slowing and its leadership will always have the specter of Soviet collapse haunting them. The actual potential for Chinese growth and innovation will always be out of reach because creative destruction is unacceptable to entrenched interests.

The CCP aren't the future, they're dinosaurs clinging to relevance by using technologies usually invented overseas as crudely wrought instruments of power.

I've always read "this is the future" in a different way.

For those of us in the USA, seeing increasing militarization of local police, plus PRISM etc revelations, the CCP looks like it might be our future.

We have a few dinosaurs of our own.

> People make the mistake of assuming...

Are all of your fairly extraordinary predictions of the future here not also completely based on assumptions derived from an extremely small sample size of simplistic examples from history, and assuming those outcomes can be accurately projected into the future despite massive changes in the value and number of variables involved?

People have been saying for decades that China is going to collapse due to some variation of them not being creative, flexible, etc. It's mostly a fantasy generated due to an internal contradiction of seeing a country with very different principles do well.

But China isn't doing unbelievably well. Strong centralized near-totalitarian government quickly industrializes enormous population and becomes Great Power is basically half the story of modern history. The question is whether they'll reach first-world levels of (per capita) living and whether they'll be able to do so without transitioning into a liberal democracy. If any country's success is challenging deeply entrenched beliefs it's Singapore.

> we have the capacities to centralize this data

but we also have the technical capacities to descentralize it (federate it?)

interestingly enough, it is getting more centralized. Is this due to economic incentives?

The trend for consumer is a push towards centralization, mostly for convenience reasons. So far it has been hard to reconcile an open communication model with saftety from the many forms of abuse—ranging from illegal actors to permissible (yet highly annoying) advertisers.

I got on the internet in the 90's back when netiquette was still a thing. Nowadays, most things are all about money: either how can a closed platform get monetized or how to game any communication method for personal enrichment. I often reminisce on the polite and open internet of the past, but that is no longer the reality available to us.

Interstingly enough, for enterprise, the trend seems to be in the opposite direction. I work on Webex Teams and one of the features is clients owning their own decryption hardware, running on their own servers. Cisco may be the one moving the messages around but we have no clue what's inside of those messages (and we certainly don't want to know).

In this federated model, 2 separate companies can communicate, relying on key management running under their own control, each applying their own retention policies, etc. Of course these systems are a lot more complex than the naive "big store of data + 1 gatekeeper" approach.

Hi, I'm the author of the book.

I believe decentralization in theory could work. But our current situation is so chaotic that there's no clear solution. However, the key here is to understand the full picture.

In the book I argue that there's a big shift going on--not only an economical shift, but also geopolitical and social. And this is going to be a surprise for a lot of people, but this shift is coming from social credit systems and the establishment of a new economic model based on social behavior.

Now, I know this is too complex to explain in a paragraph, but that's why we have books.

I think there's also a cultural shift underway.

> a new economic model based on social behavior.

this reminds me of China's social credit scores. It seems to me that this is (in a way) automatic-money. Imagine if instead of having to manage your own balance your "wallet" does it for you. One just shows up at the store and they tell you what you get. No "visible" transaction takes place.

Right, and the shift gets even deeper.

Few people know this but money was invented to keep track of debt. In fact, what most economic textbooks say is that money comes from barter. It turns out there's no single evidence that this ever happened in history! (David Graeber has a phenomenal book call Debt that explains all of this.)

Now, the shift we're seeing is that social credit system--or as I call them Social Debt Systems--are going to be "the new money."

Lots of people talk about the data economy and the fact that we need a way to put a dollar value on information.

And what we're seeing with social credit systems is that that value is not 'on' information. It's 'in' information. And that's creating a new economic logic we're not able even to conceive yet

> money was invented to keep track of debt

I think you're conflating two different usages of the term "money". Wikipedia calls them "money of account" and "money of exchange". Money of account appears to be older, and was, as you say, invented to keep track of debts. But when economics textbooks talk about money being invented to solve the double coincidence of wants problem, which is the main limitation of barter, they are talking about money of exchange.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_money

That's the history of coinage, which came after debt.

Debt is older though. It goes back 5,000 years--at least:


> That's the history of coinage

"Money of exchange" is, yes. And as I said, that is what economists are talking about when they talk about money replacing barter because it solves the double coincidence of wants problem. Money replacing barter has nothing to do with debt.

I'm not sure they are separable, certainly paper money (and pre-money forms such as hansatsu) are created by issuing a debt, but they were created for the very pragmatic need of bartering without carrying a bunch of gold or rice around.

That's what common sense says. But there's no proof that that ever happened. I recommend you to check out Graeber's book. Or you can read my whole explanation in the fourth section of Data Dictatorships.

> In the book I argue that there's a big shift going on--not only an economical shift, but also geopolitical and social. And this is going to be a surprise for a lot of people, but this shift is coming from social credit systems and the establishment of a new economic model based on social behavior.

I'm glad to see you chimed in here with this additional detail, because after reading the overview:

> There’s currently a geopolitical arms race taking place to merge biotech and infotech to hack humankind. Technological disruption is creating an unprecedented realm of opportunities for authoritarian regimes to flourish.

...I got the impression that you thought the main issue with mass data collection was somehow to provide an advantage in biological engineering, when the most obvious advantage seems to me to be analysis of human behavior such that it can understood (to the best of our current but ever improving capabilities) and shaped in various ways. Some of the shaping techniques may be considered (by Westerners) to be nefarious I imagine, but I see no reason why such shaping has to be nefarious, but rather if done properly, may very well be in a way that can be overwhelmingly aggregate net positive to those being shaped.

I've been thinking about how in the long term an authoritarian China with a fully modern technological surveillance state coupled with wise leadership and a (correspondingly) supportive citizenship might have a massive advantage over traditional democracies. The typical thinking on the matter seems to be roughly: because all historic authoritarian states eventually collapsed while democracies tended to flourish, then therefore a completely risk-free assumption can be made that this pattern will persist into the future, always and everywhere, without exception, and therefore there is absolutely no need to consider the possibility that this historic pattern may not materialize. To me, this seems like very dangerous thinking based on extremely poor logic.

I'm curious what your thoughts are on the matter, and whether this is a theme you touch upon in your book.

The thing is that you can't make a point in two paragraphs. You can state something, but it leaves room for all sorts of interpretations.

I cover all these points in the book. But just to be clear this isn't just about China as the bad guy--the US is in the same direction.

I agree on your point about that in the past democracies ended up winning. But today we're seeing that the technological disruption is killing the very essence that makes democratic society democratic. The fact is that liberal democracies have to evolve or Data Dictatorships are going to take over.

> Liberal democracy is going to die. Data is becoming the raw materialization of power, and this is making dictatorships more efficient than ever before.

Why not make the data public? If data is power, you criminalize the hoarding of data, and require it to be shared openly with all. We would still be headed toward a surveillance state, which comes with a high risk of authoritarianism, but at least we would have a shot at keeping it democratic.

The thing is that data by itself is useless. You need the right infrastructure to make it work. Data without context is not information.

But the point here is that there's data that shouldn't be collected in the first place. And that data, especially biometric data, is what allows data autocrats hack human beings. And you don't need a lot of data to hack a human being. Just enough to know someone better than that person knows himself or herself.

> But the point here is that there's data that shouldn't be collected in the first place

I just don't think that's feasible. The cat cannot be put back in the box (so to speak).

I think the solution goes more in line with open transparency. Yet individual privacy is really important.

The only way through, I think, is to guarantee individual privacy but enforce institutional transparency.

The problem of this way of thinking is that it makes “okay” to collect data that is not necessary for the app in order to work.

It's not feasible because there's a huge economic logic behind that data collection. While the truth is that most services (even innovation) would still work with a few data points.

I mean, Google Maps doesn’t need to collect all the data it collects, but it sells us the benefit with an imminent long-tail of problems.

>at least we would have a shot at keeping it democratic

If by democratic you mean freedom to form outrage mobs then I'd agree, but I don't think that would be a good thing. Having thousands of people in some community screaming for the head of some kid who said something dumb about his school and his dad's rifle on a Call of Duty discord is not going to end well for the kid.

I'm not sure I believe in completely open data because entire populations with access to it are not completely rational.

Weird that we're having the same discussion on two different threads, I suppose I started it.

> If by democratic you mean freedom to form outrage mobs then I'd agree, but I don't think that would be a good thing.

I don't think it would be an objectively good thing either. I only think it may be better than the alternative. Given a choice between an authoritarian dictatorship and an authoritarian democracy, I lean toward the latter.

Additionally, I think you may not be giving people enough credit. Devolution of democracy to mob rule is certainly a danger, but I don't know that it's a foregone conclusion. I don't how to go about preserving individual liberty without privacy, but as long as the common man has power it should be possible in theory.

I mean if you're going into this whole thing with your eyes open and you're saying, "I know that I'm just replacing authoritarian dictatorship with authoritarian democracy." Then we have no debate.

You're fully aware of the danger of what's coming. Just be aware, authoritarian democracy with full open access to the totality of everyone's data is not really authoritarian democracy.

It's totalitarian democracy. Just that small nit pick but other than that, if you know what you're getting into, go for it.

I just disagree with that trade off.

> I'm not sure I believe in completely open data because entire populations with access to it are not completely rational.

certainly not. but we are at the beginning of a cultural shift in line with the renaissance and the age of enlightnement which vastly changed the cultural mindset quite a bit. before these previous 'cultural revolutions' what people considered rational was different.

I think we agree that we are in the middle of a cultural shift, but I don't think it's going where you think it is.

It's exactly this cultural shift that I'm worried about. What exactly does crowdsourced school security look like in an environment of radically open data?

I just think you're being very optimistic.

no one can tell where will end up.

regardless, I don't think it's optimism because I don't think I will leave long enough to see such a world, at best we will leave through the roughest part of the shift. this level of cultural transformation takes more tha a few of generations.

in any case, I see something else regarding the way in which individual humans are aware of the relationship to their supporting society which translates up to the way in which a distinct society sees itself as a component of a larger system.

where do you think this is going?

As against the populations which are completely rational as determined by whom?

My personal impression is decentralized tech — at least with regard to established equivalent functionality — is still in a kind of emergent state. I think there's a lot of options, and there's some coalescing around some standards, but the landscape is a little chaotic in terms of standards and options. My guess is that will take a little while for people to adopt certain standards, and it will require more niche communities to do so first, followed by the broader population. I'm not even quite sure that the current offerings, in their current forms, are necessarily what will get adopted.

Also too, I think the software-as-a-service and cloud model has created a certain expectation among society, that everything is handed off to someone else. Decentralized tech requires a bit more involvement, that might be more familiar to older experienced users but not newer ones, or might require native users who gravitate it as their first choice for various reasons.

Finally, there are limitations with decentralized tech; I suspect that any eventual equilibrium will always be in flux and will include some centralized, decentralized, and federated technology in various proportions depending on societal circumstances.

Everything can be cast in terms of economic incentives perhaps?

> but we also have the technical capacities to descentralize it

We have the technology but I think it's still very specialist, we need a more generalised framework for the average developer.

> interestingly enough, it is getting more centralized. Is this due to economic incentives?

Decentralised has the ability to scale better and work out cheaper in the long run. However it's current state of being so specialised means the real cost is in hiring people to build and maintain it.

Hopefully as the tools to decentralise become more generalised to the point where every developer can use them properly the initial cost vs long term cost will tilt into decentralised favour.

By the way, in the website there are links to download for free the book Data Dictatorships.

Do you have a summary of your conclusions (for those of us who haven't read it already)? Are we doomed, or is there a bright light?

The problem with summaries and TL;DRs is that they don't allow you to start a conversation. So I can't provide you with a short answer because everybody is going to interpret it with their own filter.

That's exactly why I wrote the book. You can't change people with a tweet. Sometimes not even through an article. But that's the magic of books.

Is it all gloom and doom? That depends on how we react. But I have the feeling that if we don't spend some time thinking about these issues--collectively--then it'll be gloom and doom for sure.

Actually, I am wondering if its both. Could you create a 'buzz' around your book/topic via a short synopsis/tweet/TLDR/etc. while promoting a larger conversation with a link to that forum/etc.

That's up to you to decide.

But I do want to create "buzz" around the conversation. We need it. The book? That's secondary. I don't make any money of out it. That's why I'm giving it away for free.

But again, I can't answer that for you.

Thank you for that!

My pleasure! Enjoy it

If regimes like Iran manage to stay alive despite all the sanctions and international isolation, while having the power to meddle in other countries despite having such a dire situation at home, I think the odds of real revolutions in modern age are really really low. If Iran stays alive like this, I doubt China will have any problem staying alive ad-infinity, with all their surveillance tools.

Just because democracy might be a little bit better, getting there includes civil war, violence, and other costs people aren't willing to pay if their lives aren't incredibly bad.

One of the things that's keeping liberal democracy safe is the inefficiencies of governments and businesses, with "not invented here" being one of the biggest ones. What makes Palantir scary is not necessarily that they work with ICE but that they're probably delivering something that adds value. As we get better at machine learning and data engineering, these solutions will not only get much more powerful but also plug and play. That's what I'm really afraid of, at that point they can be rolled out over night.

Two biggest weaknesses of centralized political systems are 1) incompetent leadership 2) the principal-agent problem.

Better data collection and monitoring alleviate both weaknesses and prolong such system's longevity.

Probably. But we have entered into an arms race mentality--especially since 2016. The "if we don't do it they'll do it" makes this an unlikely scenario.

i was born in a communist country and lived thru the downfall of the USSR. the level of censorship and control that we have now is nothing compared to what the soviets were doing. that's why my impression of the paper is very negative. we're the generation that has the most access to information in history, we can travel like no other human generation travelled in history. and we have so much money and access that obesity is a thing. and yet people still prefer to believe in myths and propaganda. i wonder how will this pan out once we colonise other planets. i imagine the disconnect between planets will be much much greater than the disconnect we now have between countries/cities/etc

The fact that kmix was downvoted indicates with the problem with a LOT of the youth today. I grew up in the 80's during the cold war. I remember the freedoms we "had" in the USA, and how people defected from the communist "utopia" of the USSR. When I was young I learned that our constitutional republic is based on the assumption that people in power are corrupt. And believed in quotes such as "When the government fears the people there is liberty, when the people fear the government there is tyranny", which gives a rather obvious interpretation to the second amendment. You can have the type of weapons that will cause the government to think twice before taking away our rights. Or "People who give up liberty for safety and security will have nor deserve neither" A deliberate nod to the fourth amendment. The war on drugs is due to completely ignoring fact that the federal government has enumerated powers. Probation in the 1920's was only legal because a constitutional amendment had to be made. We have things like "Enhanced Interrogation" and Prison Rape, a deliberate ignoring of the law against "cruel and unusual punishment" which is just accepted with out second thought today. I could go on and on, but it's become clear that something that my dad told me years ago is true. In a Democracy, you get the government you deserve.

i learned the hard way that it doesn't matter if it happened yesterday, people will 100% forget about it.

Stalin? Misunderstood. USSR killed more people than the nazis? Impossible.

I'm glad you're doing well but please, speak for your self. My apartment building is surrounded by people sleeping in doorways and alleys. They are not fat, and cannot travel the world or outer space.

That's what the Soviet citizens were saying about the citizens of the Western block too. The reality is, it's probably all the same. There are very subtle differences of course, which tend to be exaggerated.

having lived in those times i cannot believe that comments such as yours exist.

things were Horrible. i had relatives who were killed in the streets because they didn't aspire to the latest communist trend. and no travelling outside the country, or even outside your city in some circumstances. at least not without being part of the party.

what about food? queue for 2 hours for a pint of milk, and meat only once per month because the party doesn't want to be indebted to capitalist countries.

the famine and the pain that the communists brought is in a different world than the massive opportunities that we have today (and food, food is available everywhere now).

i guess this teaches us something very important: history needs to be taught since the first school years.

in order to picture what is coming (I think it'll have get worse before there's any real pushback) imagine that "evil soviets" from the USSR had the today's internet at their disposal.

Why are the "evil soviets" or "evil whoever" the only ones who have the internet at their disposal in these thought experiments? What about the good guys? Where are the John Adams and Lincoln's and Gandhi's? Are they on vacation?

Invoking fear and doubt in people's heads doesn't produce imagination, curiosity or empathy. And those are the tools that produce new solutions. What fear and doubt produces is defensiveness and mindless reactions.

I feel your pain, but I wouldn't underestimate our current situation. This is much much bigger than we think it is. Forget about fake news, election interferences or Russian propaganda. The reality is much more chaotic, complex and dreadful than that.

That sounds a lot like claiming planned economies will obsolete capitalism once they solve the valuation problem. Only this time they have that precedent and fail to address it.

Propaganda has always had large societal influence and I am not denying that better data could in theory be used to make it worse. But just as in practice targetted advertising works about as well as trying to seduce someone with information gathered by digging through their garbage practice seems highly dubious.

Dictatorships are kind of dysfunctional shitholes because the concern is holding onto power for the few over advancement for many as loyalty trumps competence. The succession lines are intentionally horrible just toand vagur just to reduce odds of assassination. Overcoming that with "data" isn't even a plan - especially since the dystopian vague data tools can be jacked or dismantled by the successors.

Not to mention the arguement ad inevitability. Disclaimer - not having read beyond the initial pitch page: To be frank this seems like an attempt to tap into the zeitgeist to sell alarmist books on topics they know little about that will have less shelf life than Y2K books in 1999. Not exactly the best impression.

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