We have an innovation problem…

…but as in ‘alcohol problem’. innovationx

The last time I checked, innovation was not a fundamental right protected by any constitution. And yet, for the reasons that are nor particularly clear to me, it so often seems to be an argument that trumps (..) strengthening legal protection of consumers or privacy. In a discussion, whether in the classroom or over a beer, whenever someone even mentions regulating the algorithms, or taking a stronger stance on the internet giants’ practices, there is always someone else to say: “No, this will slow down/impede the innovation!”. And then, you’re supposed to say “a, yeah, sorry”.

Really? We’ve had 20 years of that innovation now, should we not run a little assessment of what went fine and what went wrong and whether this really is the way to go? Three points.

Firstly, we have numerous laws that impede innovation, and everyone seems to acknowledge their importance. We have product safety laws and standards, we have rules on clinical trials of drugs on humans and animals, we have labour law – all of these clearly make innovation in many spheres more expensive, longer and difficult. But we have them, to protect human health, life and well being; even if the innovation in these spheres could also contribute to these values.

Secondly – what type of innovation are we talking about? Even more apps and platforms. Spotify and Netflix, and Uber, and Deliveroo. Even better targeted advertising. Even more stuff can be done on one’s smartphone. Cool, it’s convenient, it makes life easier for some of us, but is also has side effects – alienation, uberification of economy, new types of addictions, fake news, filter bubbles – I could go on, but you know all that.

And yet, even though it’s clear and obvious that Google, Facebook et al. are openly violating  European personal data protection law, consumer law on unfair commercial practices and unfair terms, discrimination law; as well as all the values not yet explicitly protected by law (because “innovation”); so many people seem to be fine with that. We won’t regulate them, we won’t actually enforce the laws we have in place, because that could slow down the Progress.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m neither advocating a harsh regulation of new technologies, nor a large-scale enforcement of the laws we created before their emergence. On the contrary, I think we need a proper, informed, balanced and serious discussion on what to do with the law and regulation in the new reality. However, innovation should not be an argument against protection of privacy, increasing transparency or combating discrimination.

I get it: privacy is not as fundamental a value as life and health. But a new dating app, or the fact that your automatically generated playlist is now so perfect, or that you can order any pizza you want, are not as socially valuable as a new medications either.

Thirdly, and finally, I wonder where this comes from? Why are we so easily lured by this rhetoric? Who created it? These are the questions, and this is a post, in the  research-I-would-do-if-only-I-had-time series. I don’t know, though I have a guess. It’s a mix of our modernist idolisation of progress, and really good PR of big business. And that we mistook our lives getting more convenient for our lives getting better.

All I wanted to say it that privacy is not absolute, but neither is innovation. And that we should start thinking about what type of it are we buying at what cost.

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