eScience = biological economic devices?

Sunday 9th May 2010
Beyond Broadband. Courtesy:

As the UK enjoys the Chinese malediction of "living in exciting times" when it comes to the state of its parliament, Cambridge researcher Dr Ian Dent casts a reflective look at how 'Digital Britain' progresses in his study on 'Beyond Broadband'. The main question it asks of you as you read it is: conspiracy theories or uncomfortable resonance? Whatever else, you should read and decide for yourself.

"if your DNA is on file, and you are a woman whose mother and grandmother died of breast cancer and you have been unemployed for ten years, living on benefits and happen to have friends in sensitive locations in the world to whom you e-mail regularly about disconcerting political issues in the UK . . you will probably have difficulties in gaining access to expensive drugs or treatments on the future e-controlled National Health Service - simply because your ‘worth-to-the-economy’ profile will give you a low - ‘biological-object-score’. In this respect, NHS funding will be ‘pegged’ to the data collected on each citizen," writes writes  Dr Ian Dent (above) in his study "Beyond Broadband"

"In addition, if your lifestyle patterns (attributes) - as picked-up through RFID/ economic transactions/patterns of consumption/patterns of travel/GPS ( geotagging) etc - become ‘worked backwards’ (for example to your taxation records), a profile extrapolated by linked Government Grids, then the Inland Revenue will be automatically alerted and then the onus will be on you to justify what you have been doing and where the finance has come from to achieve it. If you have ever fallen foul of errors in Government bureaucracy and all the stress involved in refuting allegations . . you have not seen anything yet . . ."

Personnel, Human Resources or BED
The working population of the UK may have idly wondered how, why and exactly when the Personnel department of large companies became their Human Resources department? People are one thing. Resources are disposable, best if renewable, and quite without personality.

But the morph appears inexorable, and media anthropologist, professional producer and social science researcher at University of Cambridge Dr Ian Dent suggests people are being re-categorised in the new Digital Britain or ‘Information Society’ as [computing term] ‘objects’ or - biological economic devices (BED). These can be continuously tracked and mobilised - alongside computer programs, ICT hardware and evolving forms of complex data, for the benefit of a new European super-economy.

The surveillance society
In recent years, argues Dent, there has also been a considerable amount of reporting and speculation in the British press over a perceived slide towards the “surveillance society.”

The advent of geo-tagging (photographic/mobile phone GPS), trackable radio frequency Identification (RFID) chips (already in passports) and measures taken by UK Government since 2007 as new anti-terrorism legislation and legal power to merge databases in 2008, has all led to a growing unease among many in the who feel disempowered to stop what is seen as a relentless drive for tighter state controls.

Until now it has been difficult to meet speculation with comprehensible findings - ‘specifics’ which could explain the actual substance behind the speculation and link it directly to plans for an expansion of ‘Digital Britain.’ Dent's "Beyond Broadband" sstudy makes just that case.

It gives a brief outline of personal concerns about the substance behind the vision for ‘Digital Britain’ and the underpinning European Commission plans for ‘The Information Society’ to which the UK is already committed, under the European Union Treaty of Lisbon.

Findings are taken from social anthropological academic research, conducted over an eight year period from 2002 - 2010 across seven European countries by Dr Dent. The content is taken from direct
engagement, often as a participant, with over thirty government and European Union programmes primarily in the UK, Sweden and Iceland.

Dent's Beyond Broadband is ..."an outline comment on concerns which have relevance to a wide readership. Over the last two years he has shared these same concerns - often face to face - with senior UK civil servants, officers from several UK Government agencies (including in ‘round-table’ settings) and as a speaker at many conferences and workshops attended by a wide academic and public sector audience.

"His report is designed to be provocative in order to stimulate debate, however, 95% of the content can be accessed on line in the public domain - albeit camouflaged in the online specialist language of the European Union and ICT industry announcements, reports, transcripts of speeches made by senior European Commission officials over a nine year period, following the March 2000 European Union Lisbon Summit.

"There is," claims Dent, "a dual revolution taking place. Firstly, in the emergence of ‘big information’ - that is, information and communications technologies (ICTs) which are specifically designed to handle, correlate, and make sense of vast amounts of digitised data. This revolution is driven by commercial interests and includes new super-computing as well as convergence and interlinking of an increasing range of other communications and media technologies. This document will outline the relevance of this revolution with regard to plans for ‘The Information Society.’

"And there is also an impending crisis of meaning in government - where both the language about, and the models of how to both conceive and manage 21st century society are being migrated intentionally from the commercial ICT sector into Government strategy and policies at the highest levels. We are no longer conceived of as citizens, but re-cast as “informatnics” (those created ‘out-of’ information) as well as information- mediated consumers of government services - increasingly delivered through ICTs.

Alarming, Dent reflects, humans are also being re-categorised in this new ‘Information Society’ as [computing term] ‘objects’ - biological economic devices - able to be continuously tracked and mobilised - alongside computer programs, ICT hardware and evolving forms of complex data, for the benefit of this new super-economy.

And there is a revolution quietly taking place over the idea of ‘science.’ The appreciation of this point is central to an understanding of the context behind new ideas currently sweeping across the European Union, which re-frame the processes of government as ‘e-scientific’ and not just administrative.

These emergent ideas of ‘science’ in a government context are addressed in this report. Put simply, it is the classification given to the development of a massive new, linked, ‘smart’ [public sector controlled] ICT infrastructure, laid out across Europe [using distributed computing - GRIDS ] and conceived of, in itself, as a science.

Dent's document outlines these issues, exposing plans by the UK government [labour presumably?] - in partnership with the European Commission and big ICT business to significantly strengthen political and economic control over British society, by installing new, pervasive, linked ICT systems so as to ‘orchestrate’ society for efficient 21st Century governance and the best economic advantage within Europe.

No debate, peer review or published work?
Concerns were raised in September 2008 by the British Academy, that UK Government funding bodies such as the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) were planning to fund primarily top-down, ‘strategic’ [government] research: An example of one of the areas of this new, strategic research in the UK and funded by the ESRC,
is in the formation of the multi-million pound Manchester e-Research Centre, formerly the National Centre for e-Social Science.

The stated aim of this new organisation is: “We are working with Social Scientists and Computer Scientists on tools and research which Social Scientists can take and use to help their research”. However in practice, since 1999 when the original National Centre for e-Social Science was conceived, there has been virtually NO direct relationship with existing social science debate, peer review or published work.

Dent draws an interesting parallel, going back to 19th century Britain when the railway infrastructure was first pioneered. In the Grid bible - “The Grid: Blueprint for a new computing infrastructure”- a theoretical work, first published in 1995 and edited by American computer scientists, Ian Foster / Carl Kesselman, parallels are drawn between Grids and the emergence of early railway networks.

Grids and railways = society change
Connectivity, distribution and the sharing of resources are addressed  - but the subject of resulting societal change is not.

During the 19th century, as a direct result of the establishment of both railway & telegraph infrastructures, massive, unexpected social and economic changes subsequently took place throughout the Western world - even to the point of an altering forever of our concept(s) of time and simultaneity.

What is of concern now is that no-one seems to be watching what might happen to society (for good, or bad) through the laying down of this new surveillance-style-net infrastructure across Europe under the banner of ‘The Information Society.’

History shows that with any new significant infrastructure, may come many  unexpected changes in society. There is also the question of who might be, or become, in control of that infrastructure? Masking the installation of systems as the cornerstone of ‘The Information Society’ behind the  rhetoric of “research”, is to hide its true intent from the public gaze. History warns us to be vigilant.

© 2004 Drs. Gary Glover & Lara Foland, Stanford University, Function BIRN.Sample data from Function BIRN's Human Phantom Study, tested five people on collaborator MRI scanners across the US, identified the variances in the resulting data across sites and subjects, then developed algorithms to normalise these irregularities.

The image shows an MRI scan from Stanford's 3T MRI system. The global response to holding one's breath for 15 seconds shows the entire grey-matter volume activated. 

"Grid computing is a basic technology for high performance computing, including distributed computing, peer-to-peercomputing and parallel computing. Grid computing promises to change the way organisations tackle complex computational problems. However, the vision of large scale resource sharing is not yet a reality in many areas.  Grid computing is an evolving area of computing, where standards and technology are still being developed to enable this new paradigm . . “ Klaus-Dieter Walter / SSV Embedded Systems, Hannover, Germany

These are not 20th century ‘computational machines’ producing readable files which, upon request, could be printed out in simple report form, or as simple statistics. They ‘think’. The large data-sets produced within the Grid environment are not readable by any conventional lay definition. You will not be able for example to send away for a copy of your own personal ‘file’ - it will not exist in that sense.

Lies, damned lies and 'thinking' data
The massive amounts of seemingly disparate data inputted, or ‘mined’ by both these systems and other ‘highly influential communications technologies’, is virtual, and constantly dynamic. This data is then stored within digital repositories and able to be decoded, correlated, endlessly linked and then comprehension made of it by the systems themselves - according to a particular security, Government, or European Union political imperative (right).

This also enables  UK Government for example to observe the letter (but not necessarily the spirit) of assurances given within the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP). The concern is that with data held in such an ‘unfixed’ form, it could largely sidestep provisions made under both the IMP Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the current Data Protection Act (DPA) 1998.

Once in digital form, encoded e-data can then be manipulated, transmitted at high speed across national boundaries, and ‘reconstituted’ into various forms: visualised - even as 3D images - constructed to “say something” about society, every community in Europe.. and each citizen.

This evolving, uncooked cake-mix of ingredients, or ‘profile’, will be compiled and merged together from multiple sources including every single personal or business interaction with local, regional or national government / existing health care records / Biometric and DNA
information / images, e-mails and SMS content.

No area of our lives will remain unaffected by the provisions of ‘The Information Society’. It might appear that database concerns, which are currently being expressed with regard to different UK Government departments, are as separate issues. They are not. All roads lead to the provisions required under ‘The Information Society’ as part of the Treaty of Lisbon.

Every UK Government database (including our healthcare records) will therefore be submitted to digital repositories, and in time used to support ‘e-research’ (the ‘profiling’ process) as part of what is described as an element of ‘effective e-government’. Such is the coming centrality of profiling to future effective government, that it is logical to also assume that at some point these profiles will also be used as the basis for
determining a personalised healthcare budget for each citizen, based
presumably upon an individual’s worth to the economy.

Data will also be merged from local planning documents / e-social science and geographic and spatial information / our travel patterns, through GPS and RFID tracking / educational records, vehicle licensing, to passport control / from every library book we take out, to the taxes we pay. Even the content of our (secret) electoral vote.

This is why in the 2008 Coroners and Justice Bill, the UK Government introduced the controversial ‘Data Sharing Measure’ - so as to gain the legal power to, in time, merge databases and thus maintain security, but also pave the way to create supermarket style ‘profiles’ on each citizen and community - primarily as consumer(s) of public services.

Also, without true, open public debate in common language (and this is the key), agencies such as the ‘Information Commissioner’s Office’ in the UK simply appear to offer solace to the dying man, rather than halting the execution.

Meaning and data
Meaning is not just an abstract concept. As part of Dent's own research into possible alternative uses for Grid computing and other highly influential communications technologies, he undertook a series of experiments in Reykjavik, Iceland during 2004 as part of the Presidency programme for the Nordic Council of Ministers.

During an e-social science data collection exercise - using a range of new ICTs as well as extrapolating the possible uses of Grid middleware in data interpretation, he addressed in detail the issue of ‘meaning’.

The project was conducted around a particular area of the city of Reykjavik which was due for redevelopment - (right)  Hlemmur. A large amount of electronic data was collected and then interpolated into other forms which then could be more easily understood by a range of interested stakeholders - including Icelandic Government departments and national agencies.

The point is that: The systems currently being developed for ‘The Information Society’ put into the hands of local communities, could revolutionise the way in which ‘meaning’ and diversity are expressed in measurable forms. The level of inability in communication between Government and local communities has for a long time been in crisis in the UK.

"This" urges Dent, "is the revolution which needs to take place through the introduction of these e-technologies . . not impoverished, top down, economy obsessed surveillance and profiling by a Government and European Commission who are no longer communicating with everyday people, but choosing instead to consult entirely with experts and expert systems about us.

This breakdown of communication between Government and the citizens of the UK has led to a crisis of trust. The Government no longer comes to our front door and asks? Through ‘The Information Society’, it tries to take apart the very fabric of our house to gain access.

"There is also an issue of ‘whose data is it?’. The legacy of Western science is that it is simply assumed that data is ‘out there to be be collected’ - a kind of ‘knowledge colonisation’.

One of the lessons learned in Iceland was that data collected on individuals and communities can often appear as theft if those who are the subjects of that collection remain voiceless in the process and the subsequent use of that data. Complaints are already on the rise in the UK over the storage of personal data, and of mis-information held on official files with the often extreme difficulties in having errors corrected.

During most of the 20th century, citizens remained ‘visible’ to Government through various systems of public sector bureaucracy - registrations / regulations / geographically based legal and civic relationships with different layers of Government / voting etc).

Now in an age of decentralisation, hybridisation between government and the private sector, accelerated globalisation, rapidly evolving communications, and often an increased ‘unfixing’ of our identity from a
single geographical location, we are no longer perceived of as ‘being where the Government can find us’. This is partly a practical issue - to do with ensuring efficient public service delivery. However, it could also be indicative of a return to another obsession by the European ruling elite - a ‘fear of the mob’.

GUI transforms into GUID
The political agenda driving ‘The Information Society’ is an attempt to
restore the visibility of each citizen so that political control can be reasserted.

The economic agenda is less clear however, part utopian, part 'systems theory’ vindication and in part, simply a response to the lure of power offered by new ICT based super-financial systems - those which point to the eventual introduction of a ‘Globally Unique IDentifier’ for each human life as a ‘biological economic device’, within a new super economy.

Debates about sovereignty become redundant when matched with economic development plans by the European Commission for a single, yet regionalised Europe. Control over economic development is already being placed into the hands of regional authorities in a pattern reflected across the whole of the European Union.

A federal Europe is already a reality with regard to both geographic and ICT infrastructure development, of which ‘The Information Society’ will
become the cornerstone.

Since World War II, the dominant development model employed by both the European Union and the United Nations, has been that of “Social Mobilisation”. Typically under this model, programmes attempt to move whole populations, usually within ‘developing’ counties or regions, for example from poverty to income sustainability or from poor health to sustainable primary health and so on.

The key point in this is both scale . . and ‘top-down’ control. It is also a characteristic of Social Mobilisation programmes that they are designed in such a way as to draw mass populations into the political process by stimulating a public response through the actions of decentralised governance.

However, in practice, Social Mobilisation programmes often lead to polarised views at grass-roots level, producing alienation. Informed by ‘social systems theory’, social mobilisation is also the preferred model used by the UK Government within local regeneration programmes  and other economic development initiatives in the UK such as ‘Local Area Agreements’.

These activities rarely commence spontaneously at grass-roots level. They are politically motivated, having been designed to draw local communities into the politico-economic process, through public engagement at regional level.

Department of Communities & Local Government states: “Through these means, LAAs are helping to devolve decision making, move away from a 'Whitehall knows best' philosophy and reduce bureaucracy.” However, public consultation exercises monitored by regional authorities - usually Regional Development Agencies in England, Invest Northern Ireland, Cymorth Hyblyg i Fusnes in Wales, and Scottish Enterprise, in partnership with commercial developers, rarely bring any positive engagement with local communities.

Dr Dent's fascinating list of the regional agencies that have subsumed national agencies even has a 'One Children's Workforce Framework' which has apparently not gone the way of bad old days chimney sweepers and little matchgirls.

Regional Development Agencies
Skills Funding Agency
Young People's Learning Agency
Arts Council
Regional Cultural Consortiums
Government Offices
European Parliament Constituencies
Local Authority Leaders’ Boards
NHS Strategic Health Authorities
NHSEngland/then and Authorities&trusts
Local Authority Subdivisions of England
Standard Statistical Regions
City & Guilds Regions
Edexcel Regions
Higher Education Regions
National Education Network Regions
Local Area Agreements
The Children’s Workforce Development Council

Directgov initiative and digital switch
An example of the shift towards Government control and the sense of Government as also ‘offering products and services’ in the commercial sense, can be seen in the spirit of the new Directgov initiative in the UK - both on-line, and through other convergent means of delivering public e-services - such as Directgov as a new channel on digital television.

Directgov is part of the wider and recently announced “Digital Britain” initiative - which in turn falls within the UK’s contribution towards “The Information Society”. As a way of interfacing with different Government services, the website is very easy to use and a very good resource," writes Dent. "I have no questions at all about this as a useful service."

"My attention is drawn however to the introduction of Directgov on digital television as a model of things to come. The mandatory switch over from analogue to (right) digital television in the UK (and across Europe), is NOT being driven by a desire by Government to provide each citizen with better screen quality and more viewing choice.

"No, it is so that every citizen has access - electronically - to Government e-services . . and in time, the Government having access to us through the same medium."

"The potentially invasive nature of this direct access into every home in the UK will in time match with the ‘no-excuse’ stance embedded in the language of Grid profiling and tracking. In addition, the growing get-tough policy of the Television Licensing authority in the UK, in partnership (for revenue collection) with private business to enforce license ownership, is also the shape of things to come.

"Within a few years, I believe it will become mandatory in the UK for every citizen to have an accountable and confirmed form of personalised access to and from Government (probably enforced through PIN number access to wider public services only being given via Directgov) via either broadband/digital television, or some other form of e-technology, such as an Internet enabled mobile phone.

Control will therefore extend to each individual directly in this way. We will also be ‘tracked’ as to whether we make active use of these services or not. This is the emerging ‘spirit’ of ‘The Informing Society’ which, through the exact-sensitive nature of ICT programming, maintains the TEXT of written law to the exclusion of the INTENT of the law, elevating strict adherence to law above justice, mercy and common sense.

An end to liberalism in Europe?
“Europe is being colonised by a new ruling elite.. one which has its own specialist language and culture..and its own system of values.

Whilst  resourced and funded by everyday citizens of Europe, it nevertheless chooses to partner itself with big business in development of a powerful ICT infrastructure, that unremittingly gathers intelligence in support of the objectives of that alliance.

This power has its own narrow ‘utopian’ vision - one which strengthens an economic and ICT proficient sector of European society, whilst stripping away every form of localised meaning and diversity in its path.

It pursues a policy of socio-economic eugenics, ‘objectifying’ human existence through pursuit of profiling - finally adding each citizen to a list of ‘property’, owned and ‘mobilised’ within a new super, ICT-regionalied economy environment.

Finally, by abandoning enlightenment ideals and redefining the meaning and purpose of scientific knowledge and endeavour, expedience rather than reason has thus become the basis of rule . . . and so, an iron net is now descending upon Europe.”

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