"We are swimming in an ocean of ambient data," Robert Kirkpatrick, the director of the United Nations’ Global Pulse program, said during a panel on global democracy at The Guardian’s Activate New York conference Thursday. “Can we mine that ambient data in real time?”
That question captured the tone of the day-long conference on the Internet and technological change being held at the Paley Center in midtown Manhattan, where earlier Benjamin Bratton, director of design and geopolitics at UC San Diego, talked of redesigning citizenship “for a cloud computing era” and New York City’s chief digital officer Rachel Sterne asked, “How could a city be a platform the way Facebook’s API is a platform?”
During the global democracy panel, speakers Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Forum, and Evegny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion, disagreed about the dangers posed by making so much user data available to governments.
“There is a death match going on between data and privacy,” Rasiej said during his presentation. In that battle, he said he would like to see all government data made public for use by citizens. Meanwhile, Morozov cautioned that governments were increasingly relying on “technology as a strategy of control,” pointing to China and Russia as examples. Morozov also suggested that companies like Google and Facebook should have ombudsmen to represent the public interest in matters of net neutrality. “[The] Internet does have potential,” he said, “but you have to make sure to minimize harms.”
The panelists inspired some of those in the audience, but others were frustrated. "I didn't expect so much delusional discourse about democracy, freedom and the internet," one wrote. Others wished that more time had been given over to debate and less time to speeches, which accounted for about a 85 percent of the global democracy panel. “Good content at #activatenyc, but wish the 'panel debates' had some debating instead of serial presentations,” one said on Twitter.