The National:

This is from a newsletter from Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp, called Reinventing Scotland. It explores the wellbeing economy. Sign up here to receive it every Tuesday at 7pm. 

DO you think you have free will? A centuries-old philosophical debate, initially about fate or deterministic actions of gods, has recently become a more nuanced debate on the nature of society. Big data is the next economy. A dystopian offshoot of capitalism, the transition to meta-economics has already begun and it's a threat to societal wellbeing, democracy and freedom.

Free will and unpredictability

Free will is the ability to act without outside constraints – people make choices therefore people are free. Except, what we perceive as freedom are decisions governed by external systems that control us.

The more that external organisations control those systems, the less freedom we have. Big Data refers to companies seeking to use access to almost unlimited data with the goal of mapping and predicting consumer habits and analysing metadata to control behaviours.

READ MORE: Reinventing Scotland: A wellbeing expert's nine tips for a longer life

Who saw it coming?

The giant of postmodern French philosophy Gilles Deleuze was ahead of his time. "A Postscript on Societies of Control" published in 1990, correctly predicted the Big Data control system that’s developing today.

Deleuze wrote his essay in response to another French philosopher, Michel Foucault, who had previously described a control shift from sovereignty to discipline. Deleuze believed that society was undergoing another shift, from a society of discipline to a society of control.


Societies of sovereignty – A monarch or Lord controls you by owning land and taxing your access to it. They can force you to fight for them on a whim, if you rebel, they can kill you, evict you. You are expected to do as ordered but otherwise there are few defined rules. So punishments were arbitrary, often cruel and excessive, making examples of people. Ironically, a serf was pretty free – they decided what to farm, when to work, what tools to use, when to eat, etc, so long as tax was paid.

Societies of discipline – This system emerged in the 19th century and relies on systems of surveillance to classify you which in turn control how you live. Eg: You have to go to school where students are graded, controlling access to university/college, which controls access to employment.

Prisons and ankle tags confine you to a place. If you break the rules, punishment is less severe than under sovereignty. Governments force you to use their currency by taxing you in their currency, micro-laws and social rules define and control your everyday activities.

Democracy stops people rebelling, periodically they changing controllers, so that laws change to match the new social constructs. This system emphasises managing and controlling entire populations for the benefit of the state or societal order.

Societies of control – Deleuze felt that there had been a shift from traditional institutions of societies of discipline to "systems", which exert control over the flow of information, communication and the collection of data. This leads to the erosion of boundaries such as the distinction of work time and personal time, workplace and home, between private and corporate meta-data, so control extends into aspects of everyday life.

Deleuze saw the end of the individual (an indivisible entity) and the creation of di-viduals (individuals reduced to data sets). Human behaviour becomes subject to ultra-surveillance and the collected data is then used to model, predict and control behaviours.

The National: The cafe is warning over scammers on Facebook

OK, so why is that a problem? People like Netflix suggesting things for them to view that are similar to things they have watched already. People like that Facebook suggests people with similar views and posts that you will like. People find it useful that your phone eavesdrops on your everyday conversations and targets related adverts in your social media feeds – or does that one take it too far?

READ MORE: Reinventing Scotland: 'Policy' can't save us – wellbeing economics can

The problem emerges

Social media never presents a balanced argument. Algorithms draw people into social media opinion bubbles which spread lies, untruths and even conspiracy theories. The goal is to control how people think by controlling what information, news and opinions they have access to. However it is not society controlling us so much as large corporations. They want to control people – not for the benefit of societal order but for the maximisation of profit.

They will control what you watch, buy, eat, even what you think. They will respond to your fleeting desires, triggering your brain chemistry with messages to read more, buy more, think less. Once captured by one of these opinion silos then people become resistant to facts that counter their world view – “How can you be wrong if everyone you know on Facebook believes the same thing?” And then we have Trump, Brexit, Johnson and a seismic move to the right in politics – coincidently towards the political mantra that will allow control societies to dominate.

Almost all of the big data firms are American or Chinese, Europe has none. Europe has already lost the battle for the meta-economy. So when I call for an urgent shift to a wellbeing economy, it's not a nice add-on. It's about human rights and free will. When artificial intelligence enables metadata on the collective di-vidual to be reconstructed back into an individual, then businesses with the goal of controlling your behaviour to maximise you as a source of profit, will know more about yourself than you do.

Next week, I will focus on how a wellbeing economic approach can create a system that controls the controllers to maximise the wellbeing of individuals, society, economy and the environment.

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp is the CEO of Business for Scotland, the chief economist at the wellbeing economics think tank Scotianomics, the founder of the Believe in Scotland campaign and the author of Scotland the Brief.