Climate change and big data: our forgotten great moral challenges

Climate change and big data: our forgotten great moral challenges

Boiled down to its essence, government is about a few simple things.

First, we need to live in peace and security. That's why we spend so much effort dealing with foreign affairs and defence. If we can't get our basic relationships with other countries right, well, nothing else will matter much anyway.

However, the media spends most of its time obsessing about the second main aim of government: an economy that works. Despite all evidence to the contrary, politicians believe they control levers that can affect the marketplace, so this is where we devote most of our attention, time and effort. We like to believe that by changing, say, education policies, or shifting tax or interest rates, we are fixing problems. So that's where we concentrate our political and media focus.

Yet this leaves the two biggest challenges that we, as citizens, will face this coming year completely unaddressed. They don't even register on the broader political agenda.The first is obvious: climate change.

Our rapidly melting polar ice caps will change the global climate, and society, profoundly.

Our rapidly melting polar ice caps will change the global climate, and society, profoundly.Credit:JOHN MCCONNICO

No one – well, no one who wants to be taken seriously – persists in denying that the climate is transforming. The lingering questions are around how, or why, this is occurring, how swift it will be and the extent of the change in different regions. Nevertheless, the scale of the ensuing disruption has resulted, regrettably, in it being pushed to the boundaries of political debate.

Labor understands it won't win any extra votes by elevating this topic in our national debate. The public already perceives that Labor "gets" the issue better than the Coalition, so there's no point in elevating it further. Doing so risks forcing the opposition to come up not just with slogans, but answers.

Unfortunately, that's hard. Any genuine solution must be global. On climate change, neither political party has clean hands, nor can they demonstrate they can affect the international agenda.

Finding a domestic patch-up, however, immediately divides the electorate into winners and losers. That's something that no party that hopes to coast softly to victory wants to risk. While climate change will remain lurking in the political background, it's difficult to see the policy changes needed to address this crucial issue taking a central role in this year's political debate. Because neither side has any answers.

This leaves just one other critical issue requiring urgent resolution over the coming year: the way the IT revolution is transforming society.

You may think computers have been around for a long time and, in a way, you're right. But that's like comparing an old biplane to a supersonic jet; both fly, but the speed and capacity of the latter dramatically alters the equation. Similarly today, with the speed, cheapness and communications capacity of networks. The lump of plastic on which you're (probably) reading this is like nothing conceived of previously, except through science fiction.

As recently as 1996, chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov beat IBM's feted Deep Blue computer. Today, even a mobile phone, equipped with the right program, could easily triumph over almost anyone.

We are in a new world. Regrettably, we aren't addressing the multiple ramifications of this change.

Most crucially, we need clear dividing lines to be drawn over knowledge. As a journalist, I've always been dedicated to disseminating and propagating information. However, there were always boundaries, normally negotiated with editors, balancing reporting with the implied social licence the press enjoyed in a democratic society.

Compare that to the publication of photos of "toilet paper thieves" in China. Two years ago, authorities introduced a surveillance program in the toilets at Beijing's Tiantin Park. To flush out those using too much "free" paper to wipe their bottom, facial-recognition technology was introduced. Users receive 60 centimetres of paper. That's not a lot – and bad luck if you have diarrhoea.

Toilet jokes aside, the amount of information that all governments have about their citizens is growing by the moment.

Smartphones act as trackers, plotting your movements. In northern Beijing, facial-recognition technology monitors individuals jaywalking or crossing against the lights, while, in the United States (and possibly here), the direction people stroll in shopping centres can be plotted.

Remarkably, detailed portraits of individuals and groups of people can already be developed, offering insights into their lives that even their closest relatives lack. Such as the American parent who ridiculed Walmart for trying to sell him nappies. A week later, his unmarried daughter told him she was pregnant. Walmart has stopped sending such advertisements, but it still tracks the spending patterns (such as the purchase of pregnancy testers) that provided the original insight.

Who "owns" such knowledge, and how personal should it be?

My bank, for example, could easily go through my spending patterns and decide I drink too many macchiatos. But what if it uses this to set an individual interest rate based on capacity to pay? At what point does it become legitimate for a health insurer to charge individuals extra, because of their risk profile?


We need to know where our politicians stand on this crucial issue.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra author and columnist.

Nic Stuart is a Canberra writer.

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