The way we live our lives generates enormous amounts of data. Keystrokes; online payments; photos with embedded meta-data; cell tower pings; fit bits; education management apps; search histories; avatars; social media posts all contribute to a cloud of digital exhaust that threatens to engulf us. Our world is being increasingly data-fied as smart phones mediate our daily activities, and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors become integrated into our homes and public spaces.
In the coming decade we’re going to have to navigate environments defined by ubiquitous computing and surveillance. Virtual and real worlds will meld in unsettling ways. The threat of state repression will intensify, especially for black and brown people, immigrants, refugees, the poor, and dissidents. As the former CIO of the City of Philadelphia Charles Brennan noted at the end of an October 22, 2017 meeting, the future of policing will encompass predictive analytics, facial recognition software, and drone surveillance.
With UPenn’s GRASP lab currently managing a $27 million contract with the US Army Research Lab to develop distributed intelligence, autonomous weapons, it’s not too soon to be thinking about what comes next. To get a feel for where we could be headed, the write up, “Singapore, City of Sensors” describes what it’s like to live in a “smart nation” where EA3 devices track “Everyone, Everywhere, Everything, All The Time.”
Bits and bytes of data build up like passes from a 3-D printer; and as the data is aggregated, our digital doppelgangers emerge. Of course they’re merely shadows of our true, authentic selves. They magnify certain aspects of our personalities while suppressing others. The data of our online counterparts can be incorrect or incomplete, yet even with all those flaws our online profiles and reputations have begun to profoundly influence our offline lives.
As Eric Schmidt of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) says: data is the new oil, so valuable nation states will fight over it. From Cambridge Analytica to Cornell-Technion’s Small Data Lab to Wharton’s Behavior Change for Good program, social scientists are teaming up with venture capital, government agencies, and NGOs to devise new and intrusive ways to monitor people and extract profit from the management of our data-filled lives.
The relationship map below (click here for the interactive version) features individuals and organizations associated with the Small Data Lab, a program of Cornell-Technion based on Roosevelt Island in New York City. This research and development program is backed by influential impact investors and technology companies, including Google. If you know your way around social impact bonds, you’ll see quite a few familiar names: Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Atlantic Philanthropies. The aim is to come up with sophisticated ways to analyze digital exhaust and devise technological “solutions” that pressure individuals to conform to neoliberal economic conditions. The technological underpinnings of these app-ified “solutions” enable the capture of “impact metrics” that will fuel the growing social investment sector.
Cornell-Technion also aims to grow the STEM/cyber-security human capital pipeline, having recently accepted at $50 million gift from Tata Consulting, one of India’s most highly-capitalized IT companies, to build an innovation center on their campus. The program plans to do outreach into New York City schools to promote skill development in AI and human-computer interaction.
PTB Ventures, Project Trillion Billion, is one example of a company positioning itself for this new market. A financial backer of Learning Machine, spun out of the MIT Media Lab and specializing in Blockchain education credentials, PTB has also invested in Callsign (digital identity authentication), Element (biometrics), and DISC Holdings (digital payments and credit on blockchain). Their website states the company anticipates a future where trillions devices will be connected to billions of humans and create trillions of dollars in economic value. These investors hope to use connected devices and sensors to mine the lives of the global poor and dispossessed for the economic benefit of the social impact and fin-tech sectors.
Proposals for online platforms are beginning to emerge that aim to combine decentralized identifiers (DIDs used to create self-sovereign digital identities), e-government transactions, and online payment systems (including public welfare benefits) with “digital nudges” grounded in behavioral economics. See the screenshot taken from the Illinois Blockchain Task Force’s January 2018 report. It shows a desire to digitally incentivize healthy eating purchases for people receiving SNAP benefits.
Behavioral economics is the study of how psychological, cognitive, emotional, social, and cultural factors influence the economic choices a person makes. It challenges the idea of homo economicus, that people maintain stable preferences and consistently make self-interested choices in relation to market forces. The field was popularized in the United States by Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kaheneman. University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler built upon this work. Thaler won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his research last year.
Thaler worked closely with Cass Sunstein, who headed Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In 2008, they co-wrote Nudge, a book espousing “libertarian paternalism.” People make “choices,” but systems can be designed and implemented to encourage a preferred “choice,” generally one that prioritizes long-term cost-savings. “Choice architects” create these systems and weave them into public policy. Through strategic application of “nudges,” citizens, otherwise “irrational actors” in the market, can be guided to conform to economists’ expectations. Through nudges, human behaviors are redirected to fit mathematical equations and forecasts. David Johnson’s 2016 New Republic article Twilight of the Nudges, provides useful background on this technique and the ethical implications of applying nudges to public policy.
The first “nudge unit” was established in the United Kingdom in 2010 as the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). It operated as a cabinet office for several years before reinventing itself as a global consultancy in 2014. BIT is now owned in equal parts by staff, the UK government and NESTA, a social policy innovation / impact investing foundation funded with proceeds from the UK lottery system. Thaler is on their Academic Advisory Team. From 2015 to 2018 BIT had a $42 million contract with Bloomberg Philanthropies to support development of their “What Works Cities” initiative in the United States. Results for America, the organization that co-hosted the $100 Million “Pay for Success” celebration in Washington, DC last month, currently manages the What Works Cities program on behalf of Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Ideas42 has also been very active at the intersection of social science, behavioral economics and impact investing strategies. It was founded in 2008 as a program of Harvard University with support from scholars and experts at MIT, Princeton, the International Finance Commission (IFC), and the Brookings Institution. Focus areas include education, healthcare and financial inclusion. Numerous mega-philanthropies that are actively implementing the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda have partnered with the organization: Gates, MacArthur, Arnold, Lumina, HP, and Dell. Other partners are involved in deployment of global aid: USAID, the World Bank, the International Rescue Committee (see my previous post re BIT and IRC involvement with Syrian refugee children), and the UN Environment Programme. There are representatives of global finance including Citi Foundation and American Express; insurance companies, MetLife and the Association of British Insurers; and impact investors focused health and wellness, the Robert Woods Johnson and Kellogg Foundations.
Over one hundred experts are allied with this program, including Angela Duckworth and Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania. They created the ninety-second video “Making Behavior Change Stick” as part of their application to the MacArthur Foundation’s $100 Million and Change challenge. While the proposal was not a finalist, Duckworth and Milkman’s research continues to move forward with private support, housed within the Wharton Business School. Their first $1 million came from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (founded with Facebook stock), that interestingly enough is also currently working with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office (Larry Krasner) on criminal justice “reform.” More opportunities for our technological overlords to encourage “good” decision making while completely disregarding “broken on purpose” social programs, I suppose.
Take note of the partners identified in Duckworth and Milkman’s MacArthur proposal:
Duckworth and Milkman’s premise is that technology can be used to encourage people to make “good choices,” which the begs the question, “Good for whom?” I suspect what will make a certain choice “good” is the likelihood it will enrich social impact investors while furthering the austerity that drives reduction in public services, increases outsourcing, and fosters the creation of public-private partnerships. The desires of those needing to access services will not be factored into the computer code that sets up friction points and establishes preferred outcomes. Citizens are simply inert, raw material to be molded, for profit, by inhumane digital systems. In the nudge model, economic systems that create mass poverty are not addressed. Instead, the impetus is placed upon the individual to better navigate existing systems steeped in structural racism.
As you may remember from my previous post, Duckworth has been working closely with human capital and labor economist James (7-13% ROI on Early Childhood Education Investments) Heckman. She is one of five leaders of the “Identity and Personality” division of his Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Working Group, based out of the University of Chicago and funded by the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET). In May 2017, Duckworth brought an interdisciplinary group of experts in behavior change to the University of Pennsylvania for two-day conference sponsored by the Center for Economics of Human Development. Fourteen presentations, including a “Fireside Chat With Daniel Kahneman” were recorded and are viewable here.
The prior year, Philadelphia became the first city in the US with its own municipal level “nudge unit.” Though Duckworth does not appear to be directly involved, Evan Nesterak, a researcher in Duckworth’s Characterlab, co-founded The Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative (PBSI) with Swarthmore Professor Syon Bhanot. Bhanot is involved with the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in Kenya, as well. According to a 2018 report on PBSI published by Results for America, the initiative’s other academic partners include: the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Temple, St. Joseph’s, Yale, Columbia and Princeton. The report, viewable here, was funded by the John and Laura Arnold Foundation. John Arnold, a hedge-fund billionaire who made his fortune at Enron, has since moved on to education reform, gutting public pensions, and promoting pay for success “evidence-based” finance.
“Innovative” programs are being incubated within the planning and policy departments of many US cities now via fellowships and loaner “experts” who plan to advance an “evidence-based,” “big-data,” “platform-government” agenda. Anjali Chainani, Mayor Kenney’s Policy Director and Manager of the city’s GovLab, has gone through the Results for America Local Government Fellow program. The Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative is an outgrowth of the City Accelerator and GovLabPHL, which she manages. While the initial program areas are strategically uncontroversial (it would be difficult to speak against seniors taking advantage of discounted water bills or public bike sharing), it seems likely an “evidence-based” campaign of nudges, once normalized, will be extended into more lucrative and ethically-dubious areas like policing, health care delivery, family services, and behavioral health.
Below is an extensive relationship map that shows interconnections between data-driven public policy / privatization programs originating out of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the global financial interests represented by the members of Citi Group’s “Living Cities” program, and how those interface with government operations in the city of Philadelphia. Many of these programs were put into place by our former mayor, Michael Nutter, who went on to become a senior fellow for Bloomberg’s “What Works Cities” program. His wife Lisa is now a principal with Sidecar Social Finance, an impact investing firm.
Click here for the interactive version.
Feeding this machine is our gradual yet irresistible slide into a financial world of digital economic transactions. My next post will focus on that. Please take some time to explore the maps above. They are complex but convey a great deal about the forces at work. Sometimes a nudge is actually a shove. I think our city is being positioned for some serious shoving.
The footage above is from the violent July 5, 2018 police intervention against peaceful OccupyICEPHL protestors at 8th and Cherry Streets outside Philadelphia’s ICE detention center.