Facebook, GDPR, brand safety – suddenly it’s 2018 all over again

Happy New Year 2018

For understandable reasons, the last four, regular monthly episodes of the Small Data Forum podcast have been focused – almost to the point of obsession – on coronavirus. From the uncertain first fumblings of life under lockdown, through escalating mortality and morbidity, and on to a fundamental lack of trust in the competence of blustering, blond, male, right-wing leaders … the last four episodes have had it all.

Some have said that this podcast was made for events like the pandemic, scrutinising as we do the uses and abuses of data big and small in politics, business, and public life. There’s been plenty of that about of late.

So, with lockdown restrictions being lifted all around the world – and Government advice completely ignored on the beaches of Bournemouth in the mini-U.K. heatwave last week, leading Dorset police to declare the overcrowding “a major incident” – our focus in this episode was much more catholic.

Indeed, with Facebook, GDPR, and brand safety the dominant topics, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d fallen through a wormhole in the space-time continuum and teleported back to 2018.

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When Henry VIII met Dr Strangelove

Henry VIII Strangelove

If historical analogies provide the measure of a man, then Downing Street henchman-in-chief, lead iconoclast and perpetual ideas recyclist “Classic Dom” Cummings is doing a spectacularly good job.

He has been likened to everyone in the “Who’s Who?” of strategy, warfare and statesmanship, from Sun Tzu, to “a cross between Macchiavelli and Rasputin”, alternatively “an amalgam of Thucydides and Stephen Hawking”, or “an unnerving cross between Robespierre and Dr Strangelove”, or in fact Thomas Cromwell to his boss’s Henry VIII.

As for Prime Minister Johnson, a recent Unherd profile depicts him as Janus, the god of time, transitions, beginnings and endings.

Our classicist-in-residence, Sam, will have particularly enjoyed the perspective of how young Boris got framed and primed in the “rhetorical world view”, laying the foundations of the fine specimen that all media social and traditional relay continuously: “He assumes a natural agility in changing orientations. He hits the street already street-wise. From birth, almost, he has dwelt not in a single value structure but in several. He is thus committed to no single construction of the world; much rather, to prevailing in the game at hand.”

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Back to the Future

When Rome teetered on the brink of democratic collapse in the first century BCE, as it prepared – unknowingly – to move from a form of notional democracy to imperial rule, three men came together to save the ever-expanding city state and advance their political careers.

Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus – the swashbuckler, the strategist, and the finance guy – effectively took power under emergency measures. Known collectively as the First Triumvirate, they made mistakes along the way, and were all – eventually – stabbed in either the front or the back.

And as we live today in extraordinary, turbulent times, I’m certain that the classicists’ classicist Mary Beard will be along with a BBC series to draw parallels soon.

There are two troubles with classical references and analogies, from both history and mythology.

The first is that two societies, 2,000 years apart, separated by the Dark Ages, Medieval Times, the Renaissance, and the four revolutions – from agricultural to industrial, technological to digital – are just quite literally incomparable.

The second is down to the current – at time of writing – incumbent of Number 10 Downing Street. Prime Minister Cummings – sorry Johnson – has a long track record of using classical allusions to spice up but ultimately bamboozle his public with his application of erudition. Most recently, he compared himself to Prometheus, the demi-god who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, but was punished for eternity by being lashed to a rock and having his liver pecked out by vultures.

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25 episodes, and more than 2.5 years – plus ça change …

It’s our Silver Jubilee – 25 times SmallDataForum, and so much has happened since our first episode less than a fortnight before the EU Referendum. And yet here we are, Brexit still front and center and no one’s none the wiser.

When we started, our aim was to reflect on communicators’ needs

  • to increase the value of data,
  • to understand data and its insights to inform better business decisions,
  • to manage data from machines (data processing) and humans (turning Big Data into small, relevant, business-critical insight).

Little did we foresee how much our chosen field would be dominated by the narrative of Western democracy and society being undermined by the powers unleashed by social and digital media.

Yet here we are, with Neville discussing GDPR as the modern equivalent of the Feds nailing Al Capone for tax evasion.

Perhaps an update of The Untouchables will see Benedict Cumberbatch play DCMS Committee Chairman Damian Collins as a modern Eliot Ness. Or Christian Bale as EU Competition Commissioner Margarete Vestager, in the new tradition of the near-real-time biopic.

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Reading the runes for 2019: Brexitexit, the end of Chairman Zuck, and might China be the new Russia?

The SmallDataForum celebrated its third Christmas with a highly calorific and somewhat alcoholic Italian lunch, followed by post-prandial musings about high- and low-lights of 2018, and some crystal ball gazing for 2019.

Our regular followers / listeners – or just about anybody with any interest in tech and communication – won’t be surprised by a list topped by Facebook, and then some more Facebook (in short FB, pronounced fib). Followed by GDPR and other regulatory activities, mainly by the EU.

And of course we also touched on the topic that’s been with us from episode one, when it was called Brexit. These days, Brexitexit is beginning to sound more fitting.

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