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Do We Need A ‘Universal Basic Data Income’?

Photo by federica galli

Universal basic income (UBI) has often been proposed as a social policy remedy against automation-linked job loss in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The point of departure in the general conversation on UBI is that advances in technology, and a subsequent accelerating shift in the division of labour between humans and intelligent machines, are profoundly shaking up the employment structure, possibly leading to mass technological unemployment. Hence, an unconditional government-guaranteed basic income that each citizen receives can be seen as a way to offset job losses caused by technology.

photo by Linus nilsson

The idea behind a basic income has been around for a while, and around the world, trials and pilot programs have tested some of the basics behind UBI, with many of these experiments taking place in recent years. But for the most part, it has remained little more than a utopian dream because it has always crashed up against the rocks of reality. Why should people be paid to do nothing? And how could we possibly afford it?

Proponents say that because automation boosts productivity and generates wealth, societies will easily be able to afford a UBI to reduce poverty and income inequality. Opponents, however, argue that it will be way too costly – equivalent to 20-30% of GDP in most countries according to the International Labour Office – and remove the incentive to work, adversely affecting the economy. Most also assume that UBI will be paid from taxes and might take away funds from other government undertakings. Governments could lose the ability to tax workers as machines replace people, leading Bill Gates to suggest a tax on robots that could pay for UBI or something like it. But as we continue to advance into the data-driven technological and digital age, it is nevertheless fair to ask if a universal basic income, as we have known and defined it, is the best fit, or if it is time to think about other ways forward for a universal basic income. Maybe it is time to expand on the concept so that it truly addresses the issues that stem from advancing technology and digitisation, beyond merely technological unemployment. What if we instead received a basic income based on our personal data, paid by the companies who are currently reaping all of the value from it?

Data as a personal asset

The line of reasoning to support a universal basic data income would go something like this: there is little doubt that our data is all-important for the functioning and future evolution of the digital age. Furthermore, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution comes into full effect, we can expect a growing need for access to personal data, which will be used to continuously ‘up-skill’ the AI systems that will make the business models of the digital age possible. So, how about remunerating people for the data they produce, which is used to ‘train’ the intelligent machines and fine-tune digital business models, by paying them some sort of ‘royalty’ for the data that the global commercial tech giants currently have at their disposal free of charge? Essentially, it would be a data-for-basic income swap. A look at the numbers shows just how large and profitable the data economy has grown in recent years and how much faster it will grow in the years ahead. In 2020, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC), 64.2 zettabytes of data were generated globally from all sources, up from 33 zettabyte in 2018, and with an expected growth to more than 180 zettabytes in 2025. One zettabyte comes with 21 zeros; to give a better understanding of scale, a zettabyte stored in printed books would require a stack reaching to the sun and back five times.

While the majority of data is generated by machines and sensors on the Internet of Things, the amount of data created by people has increased rather dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. This development has accelerated our virtually enabled lives by moving a much greater portion of our day-to-day activities online, be it working, learning, shopping, socialising or entertainment. Today there is really no reason to believe that the convergence of our digital and analogue lives will not continue unabated, eventually reaching a state where the physical and digital components of our lives interact seamlessly in a hybrid reality. Despite the already unbelievable amounts of data we produce, we receive very little value in return for it apart from some ‘free’ services, which, in reality, work to gather yet more data (and more often than not without our knowledge or permission). However as a prerequisite for a universal basic data income, the data we produce needs to be recognised for what it is: a personal asset. Furthermore, we would need to figure out fair and effective systems of valuing data. The fact that there is no universally agreed upon definition of the ‘data economy’ does not make this task any easier. In a recently updated study – published before it was possible to fully grasp the repercussions of the pandemic on the collection and monetisation of data globally – the European Commission assessed that by 2025, the value of the data economy (defined as the direct, indirect, and induced effects of the monetisation of data on the economy) could rise to more than EUR 1,040 billion – and this estimate is for the EU27 and the UK alone.

a new social contract

Recently, there has been a persistent focus on giving people back their data autonomy, leading to the introduction of data protection laws across the world (such as the GDPR in the EU, the CCPA in California, and the Personal Information Protection Law in China). We have also seen the EU ramp up its efforts to make sure that tech giants pay their fair share of taxes. But beyond reasserting people’s data privacy and ownership, and collecting taxes from tech giants, the time is ripe to explore how to create more inclusive and equitable models that help every person benefit from the economic value of their data. This scrutiny is especially relevant if the somewhat dystopian promise of jobs being swept away by new technologies holds true, leaving us with an even more unequal world. And, at the end of the day, a government-guaranteed basic income might be less feasible to introduce in a future where global commercial tech giants could stand shoulder to shoulder with governments in terms of influence and power – and even more so in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, which have further reasserted the power of tech giants in society. In such a future, we need to build a new social contract for the digital age. A universal basic data income could be part of the answer.

The idea that the value of the digital economy should be shared fairly with the producers of the data – we, the people – as part of an equitable and sustainable renewed social contract was first explored by tech philosopher Jaron Lanier in 2013 in his well-known book WhoOwnstheFuture? Later, in the 2018 book Radical Markets, Eric Posner and Glen Weyl argue in favour of a social data dividend. The size of this share would depend on how much of the labour market becomes automated, with people receiving a larger data dividend the more jobs that are taken over by artificial intelligence (thanks, in part, to their data). Estimates vary from a dividend that would raise US household median income by USD 500 a year in a present-day scenario, to USD 20,000 some 15 years down the line.

It is beyond any doubt that data is the crucial ingredient of the digital economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution in general and, hence, is spoken of as the most valuable resource of the digital age – ‘the new oil’. The value of data continues to grow in a world where every move in the digital realm is recorded, as data becomes increasingly critical to nearly all aspects of human life. All the while, the number of digital devices and intelligent machines grows exponentially – from intelligent personal assistants and smart home devices to autonomous cars – transforming the way we live, work, and play.

With this in mind, the reasoning for a UBDI doesn’t sound so farfetched. After all, it is our data – our preferences, behaviour, dislikes, interests, friendships, consumer choices, activities, and whereabouts – our very identity – that is driving the evolution of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and our increasingly digital world. Shouldn’t we be exploring new models that better allow for equitable participation in the digital age?

This article was published in SCENARIO Digest issue #7, August 2021. Become a member of the Institute to read the full issue.