What Muad’Dib can teach us about personal data…

With all the current debate about the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’, I thought I’d post one of my earlier, somewhat less than serious takes on the matter. A geeky take. A science fiction take…

I’ve written about it before in more serious ways – both in blogs (such as the two part one on the INFORRM blog, part 1 here and part 2 here) and in an academic paper (here, in the European Journal of Law and Technology) – and I’ve ranted about it on this blog too (‘Crazy Europeans!?!’).

This, however, is a very different take – one I presented at the GiKii conference in Gothenburg last summer. In it I look back at that classic of science fiction, Dune. There’s a key point in the book, a key issue in the book, that has direct relevance to the issue of personal data. As the protagonist, Paul-Muad’Dib, puts it:

“The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.”

In the book, Muad’Dib has the power to destroy the supply of the spice ‘Melange’, the most valuable commodity in the Dune universe. In a similar manner, if a way can be found for individuals to claim the right to delete personal data, control over that data can begin to shift from businesses and governments back to the individuals.

Here’s an animated version of the presentation I gave at Gikii…

This is what it’s supposed to suggest…

Melange in Dune

In Frank Herbert’s Dune series, the most essential and valuable commodity in the universe is melange, a geriatric drug that gives the user a longer life span, greater vitality, and heightened awareness; it can also unlock prescience in some humans, depending upon the dosage and the consumer’s physiology. This prescience-enhancing property makes safe and accurate interstellar travel possible. Melange comes with a steep price, however: it is addictive, and withdrawal is fatal.

Personal data in the online world

In our modern online world, personal data plays a similar role to the spice melange. It is the most essential and valuable commodity in the online world. It can give those who gather and control it heightened awareness, and can unlock prescience (through predictive profiling). This prescience enhancing property makes all kinds of things possible. It too comes with a steep price, however: it is addictive, and withdrawal can be fatal – businesses and governments are increasingly dependent on their gathering, processing and holding of personal data.

What we can learn from Muad’Dib

For Muad’Dib to achieve ascendency, he had to assert control over the spice – we as individuals need to assert the same control over personal data. We need to assert our rights over the data – both over its ‘production’ and over its existence afterwards. The most important of these rights, the absolute control over it, is the right to destroy it – the right to delete personal data. That’s what the right to be forgotten is about – and what, in my opinion, it should be called. If we have the right to delete data – and the mechanisms to make that right reality – then businesses and governments need to take what we say and want into account before they gather, hold or use our data. If they ride roughshod over our views, we’ll have a tool to hold them to account…

The final solution, as for Arrakis, the proper name for the planet known as ‘Dune’, should be a balance. Production of personal data should still proceed, just as production of spice on Arrakis could still proceed, but on our own terms, and to mutual benefit. Most people don’t want a Jihad, just as Paul Atreides didn’t want a Jihad – though some may seek confrontation with the authorities and businesses rather than cooperation with them. In Dune, Paul Muad’Dib was not strong enough to prevent that Jihad – and though there has certainly been a ramping up of activism and antagonism over the last year or two, it should be possible to prevent it. If that is to happen, an assertion of rights, and in particular rights over the control over personal data, could be a key step.

A question of control – not of censorship

Looked at from this direction, the right to be forgotten (which I still believe is better understood as a right to delete) is not, as some suggest, about censorship, or about restricting free expression. Instead, it should be seen as a salvo in a conflict over control – a move towards giving netizens more power over the behemoths who currently hold sway.

If people are too concerned about the potential censorship issues – and personally I don’t think they should be, but I understand why they are – then perhaps they can suggest other ways to give people more control over what’s happening. Right now, as things like the Facebook ‘deleted’ photos issue I blogged about last week suggest, those who are in control don’t seem to be doing much to address our genuine concerns….

Otherwise, they might have to deal with the growing power of the internet community…

4 thoughts on “What Muad’Dib can teach us about personal data…

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