Universal Basic Income is a sticking plaster - a real cure for technology-driven disparity is needed

clock • 5 min read

The UBI sidesteps the most important question - who controls the data?

Everyone from Sir Tim Berners-Lee to The Economist is debating the impact that technology, particularly the Internet, is having on society. All agree that the current social and economic model underpinned by the technology has not benefited everyone equally. However not everyone agrees about the proposed solutions, such as the Universal Basic Income.

What many of these proposed solutions, including the UBI, ignore is the issue of control.

Future uncertain

No one has worked out how global societies should move forward in their relationship with technology. A lack of consensus means that uncertainty is becoming the only constant.

As technologists we are excited by this uncertainty, but as humans we have instinctive fearful responses, which should not be overlooked. While some describe a future that includes flying carsautonomous vehicles and neural lace , others see no clear path forwards for themselves and their families.

These people are what economist Guy Standing describes as the "precariat" - a new class that has emerged as a result of the rapid advances in technology. This community has no job security, is burdened with debt and lives in constant fear of social exclusion. They see robots and artificial intelligence as a threat. They look at the dominance of Google, Facebook and Amazon as unfair. Add to this the growing threat of cybercrime and desire for governments to use mass surveillance in the name of national security and it is easy to see why there is growing frustration. Inherent rights to self-determination, employment, privacy and security are being denied or stripped away.

But policy makers are stuck in the 20th Century. They believe mass surveillance powers are the only way to combat cybercrime and terrorism, yet there is no evidence this approach works. They set up innovation funds to foster economic opportunities for future generations, yet they skirt nervously around the big ugly question of control and ownership.

Currently the levers are firmly in the hands of fewer and fewer very large corporations who hoard data and intellectual property to become even more dominant. This direction of travel needs to be reversed.

Author Jonathan Taplin argues that breaking up Google would lead to the same type of innovation explosion that accompanied the break-up of AT&T. Resorting to regulators always makes markets uneasy, but you know there is a problem when even free market advocates like The Economist suggest regulation is required!

Rightly, The Economist has identified that it is not technology that defines our current era. It is data and that ceding control of all our data to a few vendors is a bad idea. Furthermore the current regulatory model is not fit-for-purpose as it has failed to keep up with the pace of technological change.

We must switch control back to the user and give the individual the rights, education and skills to make informed decisions about how and when they engage with technology, and those providing products or services via the internet. But how?

Power of the crowd

The most radical answer would be a disbandment of existing intellectual property (IP) laws, which the likes of Standing believe concentrate control in the hands of the few.

Another idea is to have an international governing body that oversees the internet and levies a tariff on internet companies, dividing the proceeds between countries to support the expansion of infrastructure and improvement of technical skills.

However I am sceptical that regulation alone can address the economic disparity, and anyone observing the World Trade Organisation attempting to secure agreement on universal trade shows how hard countries find it to set aside national interests.

An alternative approach is demanding greater adherence from internet companies to the principles of open source and the open web, rebalancing what is considered IP, in order to improve accessibility and create the potential for a more even playing field as a start point for those who want access to the internet.

Of course the big technology companies will say they rely on revenue streams from existing products to fund the next generation of products, but they appear to have forgotten that a lot of today's products and services started out as publicly funded research projects. If commercial companies are going to secure a long-term revenue stream from rentable models then surely they must be encouraged to take a different approach to patents and IP.

More importantly, though, it would show willingness from industry to address the even bigger issue of inclusion. Ultimately, this is one issue the policy makers and governments have to address, but adopting a more open source approach can go some way to enabling greater access.

However, none of the above options go far enough on their own. Internet companies, particularly those obliged to report to Wall Street, will always struggle to balance commercial pressures against social good. That is why I have significant doubts about another solution - UBI- which the technology industry appears to be backing over-enthusiastically. The vast majority of people I know would be offended if their family and future generations had to rely on UBI to get by. It lacks innovative thinking - yes technology will take away jobs, but it will also create new ones and new economic models. Frankly, UBI is not radical enough, born of traditional approaches to the welfare state.

Rather than regulatory or welfare fixes, at MaidSafe we believe the solution is technological, at least in part. Our proposal is that the network itself - the new internet - becomes a source of income and economic opportunity based on contribution and participation. It will allow commercial companies still to profit, but it also means users and content producers get to share the spoils. We believe we should be offering users a reward in return for access to their data and we should find innovative ways for users to monetise their computing resources.

Above all, it is a bottom-up approach that's led by communities. It taps into the power of the crowd.

We should not wait for policy makers to catch up. We have left it to the politicians for too long to come up with the answers and they have failed. We will have far greater influence over our relationship with technology and how it affects our lives if we build a movement that mobilises around our needs. The vision is not one huge amorphous online community, but many different ones focused around common interests and needs, benefiting from open access, being rewarded for participation and being allowed far greater control of our personal data.

Nick Lambert is COO of MaidSafe

This article is drawn from a blog that first appeared on the MaidSafe website 

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