Will the digital revolution give us digital dictatorships or digital democracies? Forget everything you think you know about the digital age. It’s not about privacy, surveillance, AI or blockchain—it’s about ownership. Because, in a digital age, who owns information controls the future.
Today, information is everywhere. From your DNA to the latest blockbusters, from lifesaving drugs to the app on your phone, from big data to algorithms. Our entire global economy is built on it and the rules around information affect us all every day.
As information continues to move into the digital domain, it can be copied and distributed with ease, making access and control even more important. But the rules we have made for it, derived from how we manage physical property, are hopelessly maladapted to the digital world.
In this urgent and provocative book, Rufus Pollock shows that we must make a choice between making information Open, shared by all, or making it Closed, exclusively owned and controlled, and how today’s Closed digital economy is the source of problems ranging from growing inequality, to unaffordable medicines, to the power of a handful of tech monopolies to control how we think and vote.
Choosing Open is the path to a more equitable, innovative and profitable future for all.
Dr Rufus Pollock is a researcher, technologist and entrepreneur. He has been a pioneer in the global Open Data movement, advising national governments, international organisations and industry on how to succeed in the digital world. He is the founder of Open Knowledge, a leading NGO with a presence in over 35 countries, empowering people and organizations with access to information so they can create insight and drive change. Formerly, he was the Mead Fellow in Economics at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. He has been the recipient of a $1m Shuttleworth Fellowship and is currently an Ashoka Fellow and Fellow of the RSA. He holds a PhD in Economics and a double first in Mathematics from the University of Cambridge.
An Open World
Today, in a digital age, who owns information owns the future. In this digital world, we face a fundamental choice between Open and Closed. In an Open world information is shared by all – freely available to everyone. In a Closed world information is exclusively “owned” and controlled.
Today, we live in a Closed world. A world of extraordinary and growing concentrations in power and wealth. A world where innovation is held back and distorted by the dead hand of monopoly; where essential medicines are affordable only to the rich; where freedom is threatened by manipulation, exclusion and exploitation; and each click you make, every step you take, they’ll be watching you.
By contrast, in an Open world all of us would be enriched by the freedom to use, enjoy and build on everything from statistics and research to newspaper stories and books, from software and films to music and medical formulae. In an Open world we would pay innovators and creators more and more fairly, using market-driven remuneration rights in place of intellectual property monopoly rights.
As they have improved, digital technologies have taken on ever more of the tasks that humans used to do, from manufacturing cars to scheduling appointments. And in the next few decades “AI” (artificial intelligence) may well be not only driving our cars for us but drafting legal contracts and performing surgery. On the face of it, we have much to gain if machines can spare us tedious or routine tasks, and perform them with greater accuracy. In future, there is the prospect of our each having more time to devote to things that matter to us individually, whether it’s bringing up our children, learning languages or deep-sea diving.
The danger, though, is that robots run on information – software, data algorithms – and at present the “ownership” of this sort of information is very unequal. And because it is protected by our Closed system of intellectual property rights, it is becoming ever more so thanks to costless copying and platform effects. With the overwhelming and ever-growing importance of information technology in the modern world, the balance of wealth and power is tipping further and further towards an exclusive club. But by choosing Openness we can make sure the future works for everyone, not just the one percent.
Already, the world’s principal industry is the production and management of information. And control and the wealth of those processes is dangerously concentrated, and is becoming more so. The five richest companies on the globe are all infotech-based, and they themselves exhibit some of the most unequal ownership structures in the world, with tiny groups of founders and investors owning a great proportion of their equity.
As technology accelerates, new kinds of applications and experiences are being born which are likely to have a significant place in our everyday lives, as well as in our economies. Virtual reality, for instance, can now replicate many of our sensations and impressions of the world, and has huge scope in future for recreation, as it has already for various forms of training. It would compromise our freedom if virtual reality were to become the same kind of near-monopoly as, for instance, Facebook. Likewise, the so-called internet of things is quickly growing. Already many appliances such as baby monitors, lighting systems and central heating are connected to the internet, but this is only the start. Over the next few years, as billions more devices are connected, we may see machine-to-machine data outstripping human usage to become the principal traffic on the internet. It would be deeply worrying to have control of this fall to a single corporate monolith.