Digital Nudging: Data, Devices & Social Control

Reposted with permission from Wrench in the Gears.

Digital exhaust, virtual selves

…“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….

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 of 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.

Sunstein Obama

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 theSwarthmore Professor Syon Bhanot, 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.

-Alison McDowell

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A World Without (Much) Work: Building Sanctuary Part 2

Reposted with permission from Wrench in the Gears.

Building Sanctuary: Part Two

The future is uncertain and unlikely to play out exactly as described. Nevertheless, we must begin to comprehend how technological developments combined with concentrated power and extreme income inequality are leading us to increasingly automated forms of oppression. My hope is that communities will begin to incorporate an understanding of this bigger picture into resistance efforts for public education and beyond. Let us join together, embracing our humanity, to fight the forces that would bring us to “lockdown.” How can we preserve our lives and those of our loved ones outside the data stream? How can we nurture community in a world where alienation is becoming normalized? What do we owe one another? What are we willing to risk? I have divided my story into seven parts. I hope you’ll read along and consider sharing it with others.

This is the second of a seven-part series that outlines a potential future where online education is surveilled by authoritarian interests, and strivers, like Talia and her daughters, attempt to secure a precarious living within the constraints of oppressive “Smart” City policies. The introduction to the series and Part One: Plugging In can be read here. The whole series can be accessed here: Link

Part 2: A World Without (Much) Work

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution got underway, automation wiped out more and more jobs. The disappearance of industrial work was grudgingly accepted. Then self-driving vehicles replaced truckers, bus drivers, delivery people, and car services. Even so, many were taken aback when digitization came for the service sector. As Artificial Intelligence hit its stride, teachers, nurses, therapists, paralegals, actuaries, financial advisors, film editors all found themselves cast aside, scrambling for new careers. It seemed everyone who could work switched to coding and cyber security. The threat posed by hacks to the vast Internet of Things had spiraled out of control, and they needed more and more people to build and maintain the simulations.

After tech and energy, the entertainment sector experienced some of the biggest growth from the shift to digital life. Talia supplements the family’s meager digital stipend working as a Mechanical Turk. She picks up gigs, small jobs, coding bits of virtual worlds when people go off the scripts prepared by the Entertainment Software Group. Having a background in art gives her an advantage. Talia’s high creativity ratings keep her near the top of the MicroWork platform where freelancers compete for short-term or even micro employment.

These days, though, it’s getting more and more difficult to earn hard digital credit. Many posted gigs are now issuing payment in skill points that can boost a person’s citizen score but can’t be exchanged for durable goods or used to pay down debt. If things don’t let up soon she’ll be forced to figure out some other way to meet monthly expenses that often exceed what’s deposited to their Global Coin account.

As living wage jobs disappeared, social unrest grew. The Solutionists recognized it was dangerous to have young people together in one place where frustrations might coalesce into a challenge of state authority. Neighborhood schools in particular were a point of concern, since they were one of the few remaining civic spaces where people routinely gathered. Device-based education provided an answer to this thorny problem. They would market it as “Future Ready,” an innovative new approach in which students would get a “personalized” education that, incidentally, was also surveilled and isolated.

It would play well to American ideals of individualism and consumerism. Promotional literature described this transformation as a learning ecosystem where “the city is your classroom;” only in reality most of the instruction took place online. Spread out in homes or small non-profit or faith-based settings, students would be easier to control, especially given universal adoption of smart home technology, always-listening AI personal assistants, and Domain Awareness public surveillance systems.

Online learning management systems also allowed authorities to carefully regulate educational content. Adoption of Open Education Resources meant Solutionists could edit, delete, or suppress information that might lead to troubling questions or dissident thoughts. Editing history could be easily accomplished with a few clicks via the Learning Registry. Orwell had laid it out years before, and now these addictive devices had evolved, as he predicted, into tele-screens that gazed out at citizens while citizens gazed in at them.

A few times a week students unplugged and participated in a community-based learning program related to their career pathway, but RFID chips associated with their Citi Badges ensured they remained visible to the system. Any organization accepting even a micropayment from Global Coin vouchers like maker spaces, art studios, community theater, and apprenticeship programs had to comply with set standards and participate in evidence-based, outcomes-driven programs that fed children’s data back into government systems. Student data was used to assess a program’s “success” and determine payments to the service provider and those who had invested in it.

When the Solutionists rolled out learning ecosystems, they also made skill dashboards public. Skills dashboards are dynamic visualizations of each person’s academic, behavioral, and job training data. The dashboards, tied to Citi Badges, foster a culture of fierce competition among citizens since choice opportunities are limited, of course, to top performers. As long as most people remain strivers and focus on competing against one another to get to the top, organized resistance remains unlikely.

After the lockdown, the expectation was that everyone would be required to participate in lifelong learning tied to workforce development. Industries that still employed actual people demanded a “just-in-time” labor force. No in-house training or professional development was provided. Instead, citizens were expected to self-finance their continued education, storing skills in an online learning locker with the hopes that they might successfully run the gauntlet and secure full-time employment. Few got that brass ring. Instead most were left with punishing debt for online course tuition that never led to paid work.

The decision to swap human teachers for online systems meant less money needed to be spent on salaries. As a result, more money could be directed to the tech and telecommunications industries. It also boosted data collection. All of that data allowed the Solutionists to profile citizens from very young ages. After they took control of the global economy, a decision was made to upload all digital interactions to a data network known as Oracle.

Communications, interactions with gaming and instructional platforms, home-monitoring updates, work activities, and Citi Badge transactions were all funneled into the system. That way if a person was accused of a crime, all their data could be easily queried for evidence. As new laws were imposed, authorities could also run queries of past conversations, searches, and educational resources that citizens had accessed to predict who, based on their history, was likely to break the new law and tag them for increased surveillance. Not quite pre-crime, not quite Minority Report, but close.

Securing all of that information was a challenge, but the ability to store digital data in DNA came just in time. Government server farms like the NSA Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah took an incredible amount of energy and water to cool. Rising fuel prices and prolonged drought made maintaining those dated systems nearly impossible. DNA storage centers were less resource-intensive. They could be distributed throughout the country, their operations largely, but not fully automated.

Crews of disposable children labored around the clock finessing millions of vials of DNA into housings that linked their valuable contents to the vast dataset in the cloud. With their keen eyesight and nimble fingers, children were perfect for the work. Their little bodies darted cautiously and continuously among the tightly spaced racks and industrial processing machinery. These were kids who never got to upload or declare a pathway, but hadn’t yet been off-lined. As long as they remained small, they could work in the claustrophobic data-mines doing Global Coin piecework. It was a grim existence, one evoking days of textile mills and child doffers.

In another age Talia would have been the type to homeschool her kids. Given the option, she’d prefer to stay out of the Oracle system entirely. Ironically everyone is now “homeschooled,” and the freedoms the approach had originally promised have been subverted. Kids are homeschooled AND surveilled. Even though she’s a gifted technologist, Talia resists the virtual.

She held onto her books and even keeps a small stash of transit tokens in the junk drawer of the kitchen. Cam has caught her fingering them absentmindedly, trying to conjure memories of a time when you could move anonymously through the city; at least as far as the subway line would take you. Today access to transportation is all done through Citi Badge. Everyone’s movements upload to Oracle and anything out of the ordinary could trigger a visit from a representative of the traffic analysis review board. No, anonymity is now a privilege of sanctuary citizens, the elite who live in sensor-free compounds far from Smart Cities like New York.

While Li might have liked to hang out with friends in the park, Talia doesn’t want to have her identified as someone who regularly travels there. Parks are not viewed as productive spaces. Parks represent an earlier age of leisure, informal socializing, and connection to the natural world, all frowned upon under the Solutionist regime. She doesn’t want to expose Li to the robot patrols either. Li is not yet savvy about the ways of the world. She must instead settle for an hour in an online chat room every once in awhile, but it’s not the same. Cam sees her younger sister becoming more irritable and withdrawn, but there is no easy remedy. She keeps her worries to herself hoping Li won’t be forced into a prescription video game treatment program.

Just before she goes to bed, Cam contemplates logging in to complete one more module of SkywardSkills, the supplemental program all the kids are supposed to participate in on top of their online schoolwork. If she can get enough points to bump her Lexiles, reading metrics, to the next level, maybe the system will cut her some slack and let her enjoy a book for just for fun. If she doesn’t hit her projected target in a timely fashion her device starts to buzz with texts and emoticons that encourage her to login in for more “growth.”

But today it’s late, and the dry non-fiction pieces are likely to put her to sleep, a fact that won’t be lost on the algorithm that monitors her keystrokes and eye movements. Going too slow or too fast means Cam will be coded as disengaged which will actually lower her score. So instead, she decides to turn out the light and call it a night.

Continue to Part 3: “Smart” and Surveilled Link

Supplemental Links:

Fourth Industrial Revolution: Link

Jobless Economy / Automation: Link

Just In Time Labor: Link

Amazon MTurk Wages: Link

Orwell’s Technology: Link

Learning Registry: Link

Oracle: Link

Virginia CyberRange: Link

IoT Home Monitoring: Link and Link

Automated Drones: Link

Mechanical Turks: Link and Link

Gamified Human Resource Platforms: Link

Entertainment Software Association: Link

UpWork: Link

Koru Predictive Hiring: Link

Unilever Game Based Hiring: Link

Online Reputation Management in the Gig Economy: Link

Universal Basic Income and Blockchain: Link

Biometric Government ID Systems / Aadhar: Link

Sesame Credit China: Link

Social Media Ranking Systems/ Black Mirror “Nosedive” Episode: Link

Online Skill Portfolios: Link

Bluffdale Data Center: Link and Link

Storage of Data Inside DNA: Link and Link

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Orders): Link

IoT Transit / Parking: Link

Prescription Video Game Treatments: Link

Attentiveness Algorithms Online Education: Link

-Alison McDowell