The Bright Side of Life

Despite our pessimistic focus on disasters and negative events, the world has significantly improved in areas like forced labor, women’s voting rights, literacy, and environmental protection. Even in tech policy and government handling of data privacy, progress is evident, though challenges remain.

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

There is a certain class of thinkers who make it their life’s work to pull us out of our pessimistic funk. They use data to demonstrate to us that as bleak as the world might feel, we are actually far better off today than we used to be not so long ago. I call them empirical optimists, and few better exemplify this approach to explaining our world than the late Hans Rosling.

Getting Better

Rosling was a Swedish physician and statistician whose last book, Factfulness, is replete with data that presents the world in a very different light from what most of us believe to be true. As bleak as things might seem today, humanity as a whole, he argues, has done rather well for itself. For instance, in 1800, forced labour was legal and actively practised by 193 countries around the world. By 2017, when the book came out, all but three countries had entirely outlawed the practice. Women were allowed to vote in just one country in the world in 1893, but by 2017, women could vote in 193 countries. At the start of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, only 10% of adults had basic reading and writing skills—and by 2016, over 86% of people above the age of 15 could read and write.

There is no arguing with the fact that humanity has inflicted terrible damage on the environment. But since becoming aware of the consequences of our actions, we have done a lot to change our ways. In 1970, the total amount of sulphur dioxide emitted per person was 38kg—by 2010, that number had come down to just 14kg. In 1979, 636,000 tonnes of crude oil were spilled by tankers into the seas, but that steadily reduced till 2016 when we just spilled 6,000 tonnes. If you are shocked to learn that we used 22,000 tonnes of ozone-depleting substances in 2016, you will be relieved to know that this is a huge improvement on the nearly 1.7 million tonnes we used in 1970.

Progress happens over such a long period of time that it is not always apparent that things have improved. Disasters, on the other hand, happen in a flash. Their effects tend to be immediate and their impact on people and the planet are visible for everyone to see. This is why, despite strong evidence to the contrary, we tend to be obsessed with how bad things are in the world around us, rather than celebrating how much they have actually improved.

Tech Policy

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this brand of pessimism is alive and well even in the policy circles that I inhabit. In most groups I am a part of, members vie to be the first to post news of the latest cyber attack or data breach that threatens our privacy and security. They fall over themselves to criticize every announcement made by big technology companies, dissecting their actions to point out the many ways in which these new products and services are going to be bad for us. But, almost always, the full force of their ire is reserved for the government—for the laws and policies that it passes and the cavalier way in which it seems to deploy technology.

To be clear, I rarely have an argument with any of the criticisms they level. Even in the recent past, many of the measures that the government has taken, be it in the context of the pandemic or any other data-related administrative measures, could have been designed better to improve the security of our data and ensure greater privacy. But as bad each of these individual instances might be, we have to acknowledge that things are much better than they were.

I have had the opportunity to engage with the government on a variety of technology related policy issues over the course of the last 20 years. When I first started working on data protection, it was an uphill battle to get departments of the government to even appreciate the need to evaluate the privacy implications of what they were doing. They believed that by publishing on their website the personal details of each and every recipient of government services, they were demonstrating admirable transparency in governance, and could not understand why this was getting them into so much trouble with privacy advocates.

Today, every government department I come in contact with is not only acutely aware of the need to think through the privacy implications of everything they do, they have, on occasion, demonstrated a willingness to forgo some of the data benefits that could have accrued to them in order to put in place privacy safeguards. To be clear, this is not always the case. Even when the government sets itself up to be more privacy-focused, it doesn’t always get it right. But compared to how things used to be, we have certainly made progress.

It has taken a village to get here. Civil society has played an outsized role in this—by holding the government’s feet to the fire, time and again. Lawyers and courts have also contributed, improving the quality of our jurisprudence so that we now have a more fine-grained (and uniquely Indian) understanding of what is permitted and what is not. Even the common man, by taking the trouble to understand the nuances of these issues, has raised the pitch of the discussion so that these matters are given the importance they deserve.

It is trite to paint India’s bureaucracy as the villain of this piece. While there have been occasions where their actions have been less than exemplary, we must acknowledge that today’s bureaucrat better understands what it takes to function in a data driven world—and the trade offs that have to be made. And while there is still loads of work to be done, there’s a lot to be grateful for.