A conversation by Milena Thalmann (Head of MarCom SCSD)

with Nick Mayencourt (Founder & CEO Dreamlab Technologies AG)

In 2013, Roberto Simanowski, a German literary and media scientist and founder of an online journal for digital art and culture, wrote very clearly in a feature in the NZZ: “Data-hungry secret services and network giants are a problem. But the main problem is us as data producers and data suppliers, who voluntarily contribute to the control system.” In the meantime, matters have become less clear-cut. Comfortable habits have been established at both ends of the data streams. Business models that do not rely on data in any form are no longer conceivable. A baker has a small web store, a hairdresser has a booking tool, and their customers want this convenience. Collecting data, then, initially has little to do with gaining wealth through data. But it very often ends up there.

Today, the “transparent person” whose every detail is laid bare is incredibly multifaceted within our society, whether as a consumer or as a citizen. As Nick Mayencourt, CEO of Dreamlab, points out:

“I think that digitization is already very far advanced and, as a consequence, so is the concept of the ‘transparent person’. On the one hand, all the commercial entities are pressing ahead at full throttle: social media, loyalty cards, electronic and personalised advertising, credit cards, ad tracking, mobility cards, and soon, with the rise of 5G and IoT, they will push again for much, much more. On the other hand, governments have also discovered the digital space as a way to advance electronic democracies (see Estonia (https://www.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article181941414/Estland-Der-Ruf-als-digitales-Musterland-ist-mehr-als-gerechtfertigt.html) for a positive example) as well as for espionage and surveillance both nationally and internationally.”

While numerous studies show that consumers tend to be careless about the misuse of their data and feel protected by a lack of interest in an individual person, most people are more critical of a political or governmental data system. So people fear their political system more than a global corporation? How can that be? Nick Mayencourt observes:

“Feelings are usually stirred up when governments want to digitize. In fact, it is no different than in the commercial field, and it comes with the unique advantage that we could create our own rules here. As a society, we have the chance to lead this discussion. However, since these issues are almost completely polarized and polemicized, we are depriving ourselves of this opportunity. The lack of data competence means we are allowing too much space to uncontrolled growth, to our disadvantage. In this way, we are preventing the possibility of designing and building a truly digital society.”

When the coronavirus brought Switzerland to a lockdown this spring, it was probably the first time we were faced with the urgent question of whether we could trust the state with our data. Society’s desire for greater normality through a control system was strong, but its courage to act was much less so. To date (as of 30 August 2020), approximately 2.3 million users have installed the national SwissCovid app, but only about 1.59 million apps are active. That’s how strong the distrust is. The new level of transparency is unusual. While most people are aware that Google, Instagram and many other apps track our digital and physical movements and connections, the fact that this data is now read by the state is new. In this case, transparency also comes with the direct consequence that the app can send us into quarantine. Mayencourt explains:

“Digitization inevitably leads to more data, more transparency, more control. If we lead this discussion as part of our social responsibility and from a cybersecurity perspective, we can influence usage and objectives! If we want to seize the opportunities offered by digitization for improving society, we must also create a new social system in the digital world, and design and control electronic voting, patient records, national defence, identity, rights, etc. In our country, this has so far been discussed in terms of small steps and partial considerations at best. There is no new, holistic model as yet.”

Although it is not always easy to understand, it is true that individuals are transparent in terms of their own data, and that they voluntarily admit this. The internet knows more about them than their own mothers do. Mayencourt’s appeal is easily translated. Society must take its responsibilities seriously and regain power over its data. This can be achieved, first and foremost, through data competence and media skills, which must be promoted in all areas of society. From young children to journalists, from doctors to farmers.

Nick Mayencourt explains: “I personally think that the ‘transparent citizen’ has now become obsolete as a concept and I would like to encourage the next logical step: everything is transparent in the digital world – let’s talk about how to properly digitize society and our basic rights and processes so that our worst fears and any misuse can be stopped.”