It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
User Rating: 4.6 (2 votes)

The opening line of Charles Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities” neatly captures the tenor of the current turmoil in the world of personal data. Or, as the Chinese curse says: “may you live in interesting times”… and we certainly live in interesting times. Hardly a day passes without, on the one hand, news of novel, imaginative and clever ways of using personal data, and on the other hand, tales of data abuse and mis-use.

It is important to realise that this state of confusion and apparent conflict is in fact a perfectly normal and predictable stage in the development of new social technologies.

Psychologists studying small groups have shown that there is a regular pattern of development, which is summarised as the Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing sequence. They point out that, in the same way that individuals take time to grow up and learn and form relationships before they become productive adults, groups also have to take time before they become fully effective.

The same cycle can readily be applied to the market for personal data.

The first stage that takes time is simply that involved in the group coming together: getting the right people, getting them together, and getting them the tools and materials they need. This is the Forming stage.

The Storming stage is when people try to agree on how things are going to get done. Who does what, what are the rules and who is the leader? More often than not this is a source of conflict and it can absorb an awful amount of unproductive time and energy. Importantly however, it is a stage that virtually every group goes through, and it’s absolutely necessary because it prepares the group for the next stage, that of Norming.

During the Norming stage agreements are developed and it’s only when these norms have been agreed and adopted that the group can get down to doing what it was originally brought together to do. That final stage, the stage of Performing, is when the benefits of bringing together the different skills and perspectives of the group’s members begin to pay-off: a good group can achieve things that none of its individual members could achieve on their own.

Like individuals and small groups, complex socio-technical systems also have a life-cycle of development and decay. So instead of seeing the present state of confusion and conflict as an abnormal state of affairs, indicating that something has “gone wrong”, this developmental perspective helps us to understand that these “interesting times” are both a normal and necessary stage in the development of any new socio-technical system.

Further, the system that we are creating is probably the most complex that people have ever put together, and at a speed that is unprecedented. And we’re not even clear what the task is that it’s supposed to tackle. Indeed, the tasks are unnumbered and numberless. No wonder that there’s a lot of “Storming” going on, and that norms are as yet unclear or non-existent, and deeply controversial and contested. Rather than bemoaning this state of affairs, for many of us, this is something to be celebrated because it gives us, and everybody else, the time and opportunity to contribute to the debate, and hopefully ensure that the norms that do emerge are those which favour trust, fairness, openness and the long-term efficacy of our emerging hyper-connected world.