Bår Stenvik

Digital Communal Work and Data Commandments

Excerpted from Det store spillet (The Great Game), Bår Stenvik (Cappelen Damm, 2020), pages 133–135. Translation by James Manley for Volt.

Since I think this chapter is important, I made a short version. You can take pictures of these pages and share them with those who are unable to read the book.

Open letter to the Norwegian people and authorities

Norway is a country based on communal work – traditionally called «dugnad». Collectively we have built village halls, churches and roads. After the war we rebuilt the country by joining forces in homebuilding cooperatives and building thousands of homes.

The economic foundations of Norway are also based on a spirit of collectivity. The profits from hydropower and oil have been put to work to build the Norwegian welfare state, on the understanding that the natural resources belong to all of us who live here. Today the ‘oil adventure’ is coming to an end, while a new era is begin­ning. The whole of Norway is to be digitalized; around the country municipal em­ploy­­ees are building up purchasing competence for school apps and collective solutions. At the same time the raw materials of the digital economy have already been pumped out of the country at a furious pace over the past ten years.

Apps and web pages gather personal data to an extent that the Consumer Council calls “out of control” and contrary to law. These data are worth little separately, but are valuable when they are accumulated and combined. Then they create a picture of the movements, preferences, thoughts and needs of the Norwegian people – an X-ray of the community.

In 1971, when the Norwegian Parliament, the Storting, announced what became known as “The Ten Oil Commandments” it was an important measure meant to ensure Norwegian competence-building and value creation. We decided that the oil should be brought ashore in Norway, and built up an independent industry that benefited the people.

The volumes of data that are created by the Norwegian people today are an eco­no­mic resource as well. But the crossroads we are facing is also about something more. The world economy based on data extraction has led to extreme concentrations of power and capital accumulation in just a few companies. In addition it has under­mined demo­cracy and the protection of individuals all over the world.

Norway is still one of the countries in the world with the greatest trust in the public sector and the community. We also have a strong economy, a population with great competence, and a high degree of digitalization. This gives us a unique chance to build up a more trust-based and human-oriented digital infrastructure.

Norway can set itself a mission, an ambitious goal: we can invest money in digital labo­ratories in the big cities where we can build up core competences prior to development, as for example with the Origo labs in Oslo. That way we can avoid duplication and long tendering processes. These laboratories can engage in continu­ous development, share knowledge and solutions, and find responsible and sus­tainable ways of gathering data. The citizens can themselves participate and see how the data can benefit every­one in the form of better solutions for everything from collective traffic to sports clubs, participation in local democracy and possible social platforms such as “digital community centers”.

We are already creating huge amounts of data every day, but we do so in isolation, and from each pocket in the country resources flow that are gathered far away and make a few technology billionaires even richer. Together we can claim ownership of our digital labour, and give it the form of genuine digital communal work. We simply need someone to organize it. The directorate and department of digitalization must step in and help the municipalities to pull together.

We must also stand shoulder to shoulder with the other Nordic countries, which are based on the same trust and collective spirit. If we build the «dugnad» all the way up from street level, a Nordic digital model will be a strong edifice, econo­mic and political. It will also be an international model for digital infrastructure based on an ethical treatment of personal and social data.

Today we see that big technology companies gather huge volumes of data and exer­cise a monopoly of power on the one hand. On the other hand we see authoritarian states that gather data on their populations and use them to exercise control. States with a well-developed democracy and a high degree of trust must demonstrate that there is a third model, where collective data can be made use of to improve the infrastructure and services of society, but not at the expense of human freedom and democratic control.

Proposal for ten Norwegian data commandments:

1. Data gathering from Norwegian citizens must as far as possible be organized such that the collective value returns to the citizens in the form of better servi­ces and tax revenues.

2. Public scrutiny authorities must be able to demand openness and insight into algorithms and source codes in order to ensure that Norwegian data is used in justifiable and ethical ways.

3. The development of Norwegian industry with a basis in Norwegian data must be an aim.

4. A development of a data industry and infrastructure must take place with due consideration for existing industrial activities, equality and protection of nature and the environment.

5. The control of and value of the data must be ensured by Norwegian data centres which should be international models with respect to nature and climate.

6. The state must coordinate Norwegian interests within the Norwegian techno­logy industry and public sector, and must build up an integrated Norwegian research environment with national and international aims.

7. A state data bank or cloud should be established which can take care of the state’s commercial and security interests and engage in appropriate cooperation with domestic and foreign technology interests.

8. Norwegian solutions for the collection of data should be established in a way that ensures trust. The citizens must have real influence on its use, protection of personal data must be respected through encryption and anonymization where possible, both for public and private actors.

9. The public sector must ensure development competence good enough to create ethical, democratic and generally useful digital infrastructure, and serve as an example worthy of international imitation.

10. Public solutions must be coordinated through a special ministerial department with sound resources and a mandate to apply cross-sectoral solutions and coordination, in order to avoid unnecessary duplication and waste.

Bår Stenvik

Bår Stenvik is a Norwegian writer. He has published six nonfiction books, Becoming Another (Å bli en annen), Bluff (Bløff), Dirt (Skitt), Computer Games (Dataspill), Ten Incredible Inventions (Ti utrulege oppfinningar) and The Great Game (2020). He has been awarded the Norwegian Booksellers' prize for Nonfiction, and translated to German and Russian. His first novel, The Information (Informasjonen), came out in 2018.

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