Congratulations doom-mongers. Your streams of GDPR-based negativity caught my attention… and my imagination.

Reading widely ahead of my IEEE Tech for Humanity panel session at SXSW with Doc Searls and Karen McCabe, I was struck by the corporate pessimism about GDPR. Scaremongering is widespread; words like ‘panic’, ‘challenge’ and ‘issues’ abound. Quite amazing when you consider this is something that will, after all, empower individuals and bring trust and transparency to the data equation.

Whilst I don't agree with all the hyperbole about difficulties in adapting (at inglis jane we’re well on track for the May deadline), I do concur that GDPR signals a sea change for data-rich businesses, with opportunities and threats both rife.

And that got me thinking about other much-feared events that fundamentally changed the socio-economic and political status quo. Events like the Black Death …

OK, I’ll acknowledge the similarities between an EU data directive and a 1300s-era plague may not be immediately apparent. But think of it this way. Both significantly impact the labour force, and hence the primary means of economic production: physical labour in the agrarian economies of the 14th century, and digital labour in the 21st. And both have the opportunity to shift power from the elites to the ‘man on the street’.

Let’s explore the idea further. I can think of five ways in which the Black Death impacted the agrarian economy of the 14th Century, and which might give us insights on potential impacts of GDPR in today’s data economy.

Labour shortages
The Black Death killed as much as 60% of Eurasia’s labour force. Some estimate that up to 75% of data will be unusable following GDPR. When businesses have to work with less it always leads to …

… productivity advances
One of the largest impacts of the Black Death was innovation – social and industrial. Today, we’re already seeing vast transformation through technologies such as DLT, IoT, AI, machine learning and increased automation.

Individual rights
Prior to the plague, a peasant’s rights were defined and controlled by his or her feudal lord. Seven centuries later, control of our digital persona is at the whim of a service provider or a national government. Change is imminent: self-sovereign identity is coming. And that will lead to …

… higher pay
The Black Death brought much misery, but because of the scarcity of labour, it also led to higher wages.  Many were paid for the first time for their labour instead of it being a feudal obligation. Imagine what the data revolution will do for us. Companies may be forced to share in the commercial benefits of data-monetisation. Think ‘lucre’ for logins or likes.

Empowerment through identity
In yesteryear, peasants owed landowners loyalty, fealty and homage, and they weren’t free to travel elsewhere. Today our feudal lords are data hoarders, and they don't make it easy for us to move. Have you ever used your Facebook ID to log into Google? That’s a complication the data economy will soon have to overcome, with initiatives in the banking sector such as PSD2 (again from Europe) also leading the way.

Of course, the Black Death was bad for landowners, the Church, and for millions of people. But ultimately, the pestilence brought progress, not least in the status of women. Eventually it helped to herald a Renaissance and the end of the feudal system. Are we on a similar journey with GDPR? Join our panel discussion at SXSW, and find out for yourself…


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++ At inglis jane, we see the opportunity in every challenge, even GDPR. If you need some help with understanding how you can take advantage of the post-feudal digital world, or would simply like to talk more about this blog, please contact us.