Striking a Balance

Policy-making requires an understanding of the reciprocal relationships inherent in regulation. Focusing on a policy outcome in a narrow area of specific intent will result in unintended consequences in reciprocally related areas. In these instances it is important to think about policy making as a dial. Tilting too much in one direction will cause harm elsewhere. It is about finding the right balance.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

A photograph is considered to be well exposed if it has enough light to illuminate the important features in the frame without casting ugly shadows. In order to create an artistic image, photographers need to learn to control the mechanisms that allow light to enter the camera. They basically have two dials that they can play with—the size of the aperture through which light enters and the speed at which the shutter opens and closes to let light in. Skilful adjustment of both these dials can produce images that are way beyond the capabilities of plain vanilla point-and-shoot cameras.

Controlling the Light

By slowing down the shutter speed, photographers can create ‘motion blur’—a technique that is the secret recipe behind all those images of milky white waterfalls where frothing water has been blurred to such an extent that all that’s left is creamy white textures of motion—and of city streets at night where all that is visible against the dark cityscape are streaks of red and yellow tail lights speeding away from the camera. As a wildlife enthusiast, I use this technique to exaggerate the sense of motion for animals in motion to create the illusion of speed.

Even if you know the theory behind making images using these two levers, what is not immediately obvious is that aperture and shutter speed are reciprocally related — the wider you open up your aperture, the faster your shutter speed has to be for the image to remain perfectly exposed. And vice versa.

What this means, in practical terms, is that the only way you are going to get motion blur in your image is if you are willing to forsake a smooth background—just as if you want your foreground to pop, that can never happen with an artistically blurred subject. It is only after you properly understand these trade-offs and what it means for the image that you are trying to shoot, that you start becoming truly intentional with the images you create.

Reciprocal Relationships

Reciprocal relationships are all around us and deeply influence the choices we make. When we are ill, the treatment we receive involves, more often than not, the careful weighing of the immediate benefits that the medicines we’ve been prescribed will have, against the side-effects that those same medicines might cause. Sportsmen know that the demands they are making on their body for a crucial match or sporting event often come with consequences they will probably have to endure for the rest of their lives. Even in our day-to-day interactions, almost every decision we take involves the weighing of risk and reward—to the point where our ultimate decision represents our own personal assessment of what will give us the best possible outcome under our personal circumstances.

Given this fact, it still surprises me how frequently our policy endeavours end up overlooking the impact that a given regulation can have on adjacent fields that share a reciprocal relationship with it. By only focusing on achieving the best possible policy outcome in the narrow area of our specific intent, we, more often than not, end up causing unintended consequences in other reciprocally-related areas.

Privacy and Innovation

Take data, for example. Concerns around personal privacy have forced us to optimize our laws to protect privacy above all else. As a result, our legislations ensure that there are only limited purposes to which our personal data can be put and only few persons with whom it can be shared. Anyone permitted to use our data can only use as much of it as is necessary to achieve the stated purpose and can retain it for no longer than is absolutely necessary.

This regulatory approach assumes that in order to achieve the objective of privacy protection we have to drastically limit access to personal data, so that we can be sure it will not be used to cause harm. What this fails to take into account is the extent to which restricting the availability of data can affect data-driven innovation.

Modern data technologies have made it possible for us to derive considerable value from personal data. Many of the services that we have come to rely on today—the recommendation engines that suggest books for us to read and movies for us to watch, the navigation systems that alert us to leave earlier than planned when congestion starts to build up on a route to our next meeting, and the tools that make it possible for us to search through photos in our digital libraries to find the people or things we’re looking for—all use personal information that we have contributed to assist us in ways that have become so much part of our modern lives that we will struggle to function without them.

Privacy regulations based on limiting the availability of personal data at all costs also reduce the availability of this data for beneficial ancillary uses. Rather than applying such absolute restrictions would we not be better served by an alternate regulatory framework that achieves both ends?

The Policy Dial

Regulators need to appreciate the reciprocal relationship that exists between data protection and innovation. They need to acknowledge that when data regulations favour privacy, they often do so at the cost of innovation. And vice versa.

This, I have found, is a surprisingly difficult concept to digest. Policy makers who believe that regulation can fix everything are convinced that they can draft regulations that both protect privacy and enable innovation. While that may be true, unless they recognise the reciprocity inherent in the relationship they will not be able to appreciate how the rules they impose to improve the effectiveness of the one will degrade the enjoyment of the other.

For policy makers such as these, I find it helpful to illustrate my point with a metaphor. I ask them to visualise a dial that they can adjust—with innovation at one end and privacy at the other. I tell them they need to set the dial at the precise spot between these two extremes that results in the most appropriate regulation. Anything they do will be at the cost of something else and there is no way, no matter how hard they try, that they will ever be able to achieve either one unless they are willing to sacrifice the other.

This metaphor, I find, is a useful way to describe the art of policy making - which is, after all, the art of finding the right balance.