Data Populism

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Why we need a progressive data populist movement

Evgeny Morozov:

""A much better agenda for left-leaning populists would be to insist that data is an essential, infrastructural good that should belong to all of us; it should not be claimed, owned, or managed by corporations. Enterprises should, of course, be allowed to build their services around it but only once they pay their dues. The ownership of this data – and the advanced AI built on it – should always remain with the public. This way, citizens and popular institutions can ensure that companies do not hold us hostage, imposing fees for using services that we ourselves have helped to produce. Instead of us paying Amazon a fee to use its AI capabilities – built with our data – Amazon should be required to pay that fee to us.

This points to a broader deficiency with most populist projects of the left: all they can promise is just more of the same but done better, utopia be damned. So, antitrust regulations will get tougher; jobs will magically come back; the welfare state will once again be as generous as it was in the 1960s.

However, the jobs won’t come back because they never really left: they were simply automated out of existence. Making big data firms smaller is not a programme that will excite anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of what makes these firms so effective and their products so affordable. Waxing nostalgic about the highly intrusive welfare state – while Silicon Valley elites cheerlead for the creative flexibility of basic income – also seems suicidal.

The left’s inability to master this new populist language is all the more puzzling, given that technology is one issue where rightwing populists such as Trump and Ukip have little to offer. It’s even hard to imagine what the rightwing version of data populism would be like, other than to say that we have been living and breathing such populism, albeit in a polished, neoliberal version of Barack Obama or David Cameron, for the last decade.

Data populism, in other words, is one issue on which the populist left does have a genuine advantage." (

Data is not like oil

Duncan Ross:

"Given the current anti-expert feeling, I’m reluctant to criticise a movement that would make better social use of data, but Evgeny Morozov’s call for data populism (“Data populists must seize our information for the benefit of us all”, In Focus, last week) fails on a number of points. He writes of data and artificial intelligence as if they were the same thing: they are not.

More worryingly, he seems to have taken the “data is the new oil” mantra a little too literally. Unlike oil, data doesn’t exist independent of action. It isn’t sitting in the ground waiting to be discovered. It only exists because people take action, and others – often companies – take time and effort (and use money) to collect and analyse it. Similarly, data doesn’t become valuable simply by putting it in a database. Without extensive cleaning, linking and analysis, you’re just paying a large amount of money for storage. And AI doesn’t simply turn data into profit – it takes significant effort (and money) to make AI useful.

It seems Morozov is simply calling for the nationalisation of data without consideration for what that might actually mean: a lost cause, even if it were possible to pin data down to a nation. But there are positive options for making data serve people, not just profits – through the application of data and AI to the public and third sectors. And that is both practical and achievable today." (