Welcome to episode 188 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and cohost Dirk Knemeyer.
To start off this new year on The Digital Life, we’re going to discuss cyber rights and the right to disconnect law that recently took effect in France on January 1st of 2017. If you haven’t heard about this, basically after hours the French, if they’re part of a company of 50 or more people, no longer need to pay attention to work email for reasons of health and well being. Basically, companies need to set up hours where their employees can effectively disconnect. It looks like lose enlightened humanists in France are now staking out some new territory for rights in the digital age, for cyber rights.
I wanted to talk a little bit about this law because I think it’s fairly unique. Whether it’s going to be a ground-breaking law remains to be seen. Also, dig into digital human rights or cyber rights. We spend so much of our time online, connected, communicating, posting things, creating things, that we have this world that’s very much tied to our physical world, but none-the-less it’s the cyber world of information. There are a host of rights that I think we’re beginning to look into developing and this French law is just sort of on the outskirts of those rights, but certainly one worth discussing because we’re basically talking about labor rights in some respect.
So Dirk, do you want to way in a little bit on the French law, and then I have this list of potential cyber rights that I want to run by you as well.
Sure, sure, so the French law really struck a personal note for me. The reason for that is when I was younger, it’s less over the last few years, but when I was younger I was basically working 17 hours a day.
You know, I would be spending a little bit of the time with family, but even when I’m there the emails going and if something important comes in I’m going to respond to it. There’s someone who I worked with for a long time, worked very closely, and certainly email was a big part of our communication. Probably more so for me, I’ve always been a heavy email-er, I’m introverted, it just email as a medium suits me pretty well. There came a point his wife wrote me and said, “Dirk, you can’t send emails on the weekend anymore.” She said, “All weekend emails flow in from you with all these big initiatives, requests, things to do, and my husband gets more and more stressed. More and more anxious. More and more unhappy, because your emails keep coming in.” She said, “You just, you just can’t do it anymore.”
I was in my 30s at that point and so you know I had been emailing my way, which is 24/7 essentially for many years. Just oblivious to the possibility that for another person, that flow of communication in certain times, in certain volumes, would be a negative. Would be something that had a deleterious effect on them, because at that phase of my life I was just sort of wired to be always working, always going, it wasn’t, it may have been subconsciously and internally stressful for me in ways I wasn’t in touch with. Consciously when emails would come in I didn’t feel stress, I just attacked them, I just took them, I just went right too them. The metaphor I’ve used for email is tennis. It’s like playing tennis. I would run around the court making sure the balls were always in the other peoples court, basically.
Fast forward now to today, and France is identifying the fact that email, receiving email, feeling the compulsion to respond to email, the requests that email may contain that spur someone to other action at certain times, in certain proportions, isn’t good for you. It’s unhealthy in ways large or small. I think that’s an important recognition. I don’t think that the French law, you know, you said the sort of- we don’t know yet, is it just one little thing, is it visionary. It’s probably one little thing. France has been a trailblazer in affecting labor law that basically no-one else adopts, right? France famously did the 30 hour work week I don’t know how many years ago, but sometime this decade. You know, nobody else is doing that, or maybe there’s a few small countries. But, the main pillars of the economy certainly are not. They’re going by the old rules, and the old modes.
I think I’m really, I’m happy that this law is sort of making us think more about the impacts of modern technology on human life. First world life to make it more specific. But, I don’t think that this law in and of itself is going to amount to a sea-change of any sort.
Yeah, I do think it’s a salvo in the sort of digital rights for workers category. I’ll expand on that a little. I do think that, call them creative class or knowledge workers, I don’t think we’ve had that moment of reckoning that physical labor had during the say earlier 1900s where labor started getting organized and sort of staked out certain rights that we all benefit from today. So for instance, the 40 hour work week is tied to the labor movement, same thing with weekends. Otherwise, factory life in the early 1900s was work all the time in very dangerous conditions potentially. So, as digital workers we’re still sort of floating, for lack of a better word, in terms of determining what it is that we’re going to stake our claim to in terms of what is work, what is separate from work, what kind of rights do we want to have, what aspects of the digital life are freeing, what are actually just another set of shackles under the guise of transformative technology, right?
I think that could be a topic for its own show, but I do think that digital workers rights have yet to be well defined, and that goes across all aspects of labor law. From the independent contractors, I’ll put that in quotes, who drive of Uber, to the Hollywood model that generates you know where you bring teams together just for short projects and then everybody goes their own way. I mean, these are all sort of ways of working that are very much important in this digital world that we live in, and we haven’t quite worked out all of the legal niceties and philosophical niceties and other aspects. Add to that the fact that there are a lot of organizations that came up during the 20th century that are now decaying, whether it be traditional labor organizations or groups that are for societies benefits, like the Lions Club for instance. All of these organizing principles that gave the labor movement cohesion are no longer holding their own quite as much in this new digital world.
I really like the historical analogy that you’ve drawn to early 20th century and industry revolution, but I think things are going to get on differently now and there’s a few reasons why. Number one is at that time, the worst part of your life was work. You would go in, you’d lose fingers, you wouldn’t be able to sleep, it was human slavery, human torture, human- I mean it was really, the worst part of your life was the work experience. Now, the worst part of your life is not the work experience. So yeah I know, using email as the example, it can be stressful to get email at night. It can be stressful to get email on vacation, on the weekend, yada, yada, yada. But, that’s not the worst part of our lives. The worst part of our lives is not the work part, it’s the life part. It’s the fact that we’re addicted to sugar. It’s the fact that we’re addicted to salt. It’s the fact that we are addicted to the call of the new. It’s the fact that we are in this broken capitalist paradigm that makes us fat, that makes us inattentive, that makes us feel unfulfilled.
There were enormous reasons why the industrial revolution needed to be reformed, and the inhumanity of work needed to be brought more in line with what’s appropriate. But, it’s so much farther down the list now. The issues we have, or rather some of the personal things that I said, or some of the more systemic things around global warming. Like, the fact that email stresses us out is just not a big deal on the list, whereas child labor laws and some of the things that didn’t exist over a 100 years ago, like the absence of those, were more sort of at the fulcrum of what was wrong with civilization.
The things that are wrong with civilization now are really far removed from the plight of the digital worker. Which, is not to say that those aren’t negative things, but it’s going to be a lot harder to coalesce around that as the rallying cry in this environment of plenty, and where the real issues and the real things that are killing us are happening at a very different level.
Yeah, I take your point on that. I do think there are some intimate connections there between, you know you talked about health and sugar and all those things that are sort of incorporated into our every day life and eating habits and things like that. I think some of that certainly has a relationship to our work as well. We’re all sedentary when we’re, like digital workers tend to be sedentary when they’re working. Just getting away from the computer and, I don’t know, going outside right, that requires you to disconnect but it also enables you to get some exercise or what have you. I do think there are intimate connections between the problems that digital workers face and these cyber rights. They’re just not as straight forward as okay, the kid is eight years old and he’s working in a factory and he’s going to get sucked into a machine. Those are kind easier to see like, “Yeah, that kid shouldn’t be in there at all,” versus, “Hey, I’m in front of a computer 12 hours a day or whatever. I’m not getting enough exercise and so that’s stressing my heart or my cardiovascular system or whatever.”
They’re physical rami-factions of a work and lifestyle, but they’re not, it’s not like Upton Sinclair’s the Jungle, right? There’s no horrific pay-off for that, it’s more like over time those things will weigh on the digital worker.
Right, that’s true, it’s far more insidious.
Right, so I did want to take a few minutes to run some of these other digital, we’ll call them digital rights or cyber rights, by you just because I think we’ve covered a lot of these over time in our previous episodes and I never quite put them all together under cyber rights before and I wanted to get your opinion on them. Thinking about our digital lives and all the things that we generate with digital, these are some of the rights that I think are going to shape up over the next year and moving forward.
We often talk about having a right to your own health data, but there’s this idea that there’s data that we generate that should be ours. I see a right to data. In light of cyber bullying and online trolling and all those things, I see a right not to be harassed forming. Now, here’s a tough one. Do we have also a right to privacy in the digital life? We like to think so in our physical world, but the right to privacy is something that’s going to be really tough. That sort of goes along with the cyber security, right. Then, I think we’re going to see coming down the road some kind of right to some civic rights, maybe it’s about voting online. Maybe we have a right to vote online. But, those four or five different rights are ones that I see bubbling up from the conversations we’re having here on the podcast, the news generally speaking, and the way things are going you know developing rights in cyber space.
What do you think of those Dirk, are those real developments or am I off here?
Well it’s a big list Jon, where do you want to start?
Let’s start with the right to our own data. It’s something that we talk about a lot here at the studio, but I feel like that’s an important one, especially in the health field.
Yeah I mean, I think that’s a murky one. I think that’s the murkiest of all, because what does your data mean? When I walk into a store, they have a sensor that records the person walked into the store; is that inclusive in my data? When I’m out on the street there are cameras filming, and some of them can make out my face and could come in tight on my face, and that’s data out there. Is that my data? To me that’s the trickiest, because it requires a crisp definition of what, quote unquote, your data is. I haven’t seen a good thesis for what that should be, and I think getting to the bottom of it is going to be tricky.
You’re probably right about the broadness of that. Even health data right, there’s all sorts of trickiness associated with that. That’s reasonably easy to define, relative to the other data that we generate. Second on my list was, and this you know has kind of come to the fore recently, the right not to be harassed. That is a growing problem I think online.
That ones hard as well, because that goes right in the face of free speech, and free speech is arguably the most important tenant of the US constitution. Of the rules that govern the United States. What constitutes harassment, when is someone being harassed. One of the most important parts of a free speech policy is the you know, someone, I’ll butcher the quote but, “You may hate what someone is saying, but you’ll defend to your death their right to say it.” So, that is inherently defending the ugliest of speech, the most hurtful of speech. Particularly now that we’re in a social environment where there is hyper sensitivity to anything that comes from one persons mouth or behaviour and how that’s taken by others, and is translated into hurt, it really meddlesome.
I think, I mean the trends are certainly tipping towards what you’re suggesting, however I think Donald Trumps Presidency and the Republic control of the government will probably ensure that nothing is happening soon. Because, most of the people who are like oh you know, sort of, “F PC,” kind of thing, those are all on the right and the right is in control. We’re probably not going to see anything soon from a legislative perspective, but certainly from social perspective there’s been a huge swing left towards, I think even hyper sensitivity and to the point of not having a sensible filter of let’s not be bruised by every little indirect thing that wasn’t intended for us and has little to do with us.
Yeah, that’s going to be an ongoing debate for sure. The next one I had on the list was whether or not we have any privacy rights online anymore. And, of course we do, in terms of generally speaking the laws protect our privacy to an extent but I feel like, at least in 2016, the amount of hacking that we saw where peoples private emails were exposed or companies data was exposed, or even at the highest levels of government in that US presidential race. Practically it feels like privacy is being eroded, to what extent that is for our benefit because we want all these nice things online, I’m not sure. But it feels like a right that’s in flux.
I don’t know what’s going to happen on the legal side. I’ve said a lot of times on this show before that all of us should expect that anything we are creating digitally on a networked device, is out in the wild. Is known by other people. Is stored somewhere where if we become a Politician in the future, it is going to resurface and it is going to shiv us in the back. You just need to take that for granted, and if you’re not taking it for granted, if you’re saying you’re going to be fine or it’s not happening, then you’re being really unfortunately naive and you’re going to be hurt by that at some point.
The last right I had in my ad-hock list here was a right to vote online. Which, given all of the hacking in and around our recent election, I don’t know if that will ever come to be. But, it seems like something that could potentially engage more people, especially when you talk about people having difficulty getting to polling places or other reasons why they might not be able to vote. Voting online seems like it’s a right that should be coming, and it is probably practically much more difficult than I care to imagine.
If the current hegemony keeps marching forward then it certainly will happen. It probably isn’t soon. Again, with the US political, and most of my comments on this show are directed towards the US, it’s the culture I’m in it’s the culture I know. With the recent US political changes, it certainly isn’t going to happen for the next four to eight years. Even after that you know who knows, it’s not something that would happen very quickly certainly. As time moves forward on the current path, we’re getting more and more integrated into our machines. I was just reading something else, something recently, that sort of full mind machine interface integration is less than a decade away, I think that was from the head of robotics at MIT. In that world, simply a lot of things that right now we have to move in physical space to achieve we’re not going to have to move in physical space to achieve anymore. Voting is sort of a clear and obvious example of something that will fall into that.
Now, the other way all of this could go of course is, there’s uncertainty in terms of the effects of global warming, who knows what’s going to happen geo politically at a macro level. It is not a done deal that technology is going to continue to advance and we’re going to continue heading towards the singularity, to use that particular theory of it. There are things that could happen that definitely that stop that march, and that turns things around or make us manifest in more analogue and what some people might even say backward ways. I don’t expect that to happen, but there’s a real chance that that could happen.
With some of the things that are happening around the world, and just our ability and our meaning, sort of an individual human in the generic to impact major damage to other people and to countries and potentially to the whole world. We’ll have to see, but voting will really I think fall out of does technology keep progressing in the way that is, or are there nasty things happening to civilization that slow the whole boat down in which the last thing we’re going to be worried about at that point is voting online.
Yeah so, this conversation all started of course around the French passing this law around labor rights and email. I thought it was a good first shot at establishing some of these digital rights online, and you know look forward to seeing how all this develops.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. So, it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, PlayerFM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett that’s j-o-n f-o-l-l-e-t-t. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s g-o-i-n-v-o dot com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer that’s @d-k-n-e-m-e-y-e-r. Thank you so much for listening.
That’s it for episode 188 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.