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Addressing the downsides of ‘control’

Posted on: Monday 23rd of March 2015

You know things are on the move when, suddenly, concepts that were hardly talked about a few years ago are now on everyone’s lips. That’s what’s happening right now with ‘transparency’ and individuals having ‘control’ over their personal data. These were the themes at the Market Research Society conference session on personal data. They’re also emerging as part of the UK general election battle.


The costs of ‘control’

So it’s time to dig a little deeper. Are transparency and control unadulterated benefits? The answer, sadly, is ‘No’. They have a cost – a potentially high cost at that. Both impose a burden of work on the user. For transparency to work, users have to invest precious time and attention investigating and understanding. Ditto for control. You have to invest time and effort understanding what you want to control, why and how. Which raises the question ‘should users have to invest this sort of time and effort just to make sure things are right with the use of their personal data?

Now consider an alternative view. Many years ago the great English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed that ‘civilisation advances by the number of things people don’t have to think about’.

He’s right, but nature got there first. Just imagine if, every time you wanted to digest something, you had to have a close look at what was going on in your stomach (transparency), and then had to issue instructions for what was to happen (control).

In fact, what goes on inside of your stomach is completely untransparent to you, and you can’t exercise ‘control’ over it. But it still works fine (most of the time). Things just happen automatically, so we don’t have to think about them. We only notice when something goes wrong.


Harnessing the power of the algorithm

So do we really want ‘transparency and control’ when it comes to personal data? Or would it be better if it could be used automatically in ways we didn’t have to think or worry about? Is it possible to create the right mix of transparency and control?

It might be, through the right use of algorithms – algorithms in the service of individuals. For a simple parallel, think about the standing orders and direct debits millions of people use in the banking system every day. To set them, we need ‘transparency’ (the information we need to make and implement decisions). We also need ‘control’: agreeing how much is to be paid, to whom, how often.

But once we’ve set the ball rolling things work automatically for us. Safely.

So we invest a little bit of time and effort ‘exercising control’, to create a specification, so that it can then work without our having to pay it a lot of attention. This is how we think most successful Personal Information Management Services (PIMS) will work in the future: by putting the power of algorithms (plus information) in the hands of individuals, so that individuals can manage their relationships with organisations (including data sharing) get more done using less time, effort and attention to remain in ‘control’.