Your data, your asset

Large corporations are currently walking over each others’ faces to gather data on us. Who can blame them – the biggest and most profitable companies in the world specialise in it. They see data as an inevitable asset class, one they can plunder. But that’s all about to change.

Personal Customer Data will very quickly move from being an asset to a liability. We haven’t seen it yet, but coming soon a courtroom nearby will be ‘data litigation’ cases. Think multi-billion dollar court settlements for lax protections and real physical consequences of data misuse. We’ll see corporations hit by both governments and citizens. The technology needed solve the data problem couldn’t come at a better time – yep, here I go again espousing the virtues of blockchain. But this thing is as real as the promise of the internet was. Just like the dot com boom, blockchain will misfire and take a little while to sort out the tech shortcomings, but it will be as big as promised. It is filled with opportunities to literally turn the data business upside down.

The problem of course has always been that while our data isn’t worth much in isolation – a few dollars per user per quarter – it is worth a lot when it gets aggregated by a single firm like Facebook. Many applications in the social media realm like steem.io are creating social platforms where we will own and control our data. Steem might end up as the Friendster or Myspace of blockchain social, but the shift is big, and it goes a little something like this:

In the future, we’ll be able to sell our data to corporations. Those who currently buy advertising, based on our data, will eventually pay us directly instead of some intermediary. Let’s take banking as an example. Currently banks invest millions per month trying to reach people who might require finance for a new home. They use services like Facebook and Google to see who’s posting about open houses, having garage sales or maybe just had babies – social triggers that locate their best potential target audience. But for every hundred or so people the reach, they do business with only one. While the cost of advertising in digital is cheaper and more targeted than TV and outdoor, the cost per acquisition of a new home loan is still very high –  few thousand dollars minimum. Imagine instead us allowing banks ‘rent a data key’ off us directly for a few hundred dollars. With all our relevant financial, employment, living expenses and other anonymised data. Banks who want our business pay us directly for the privilege of access to customers with real intent instead employing a digital dragnetCompeting banks then put an algorithm to task to come back with their best offer for a loan. We get paid via our data to choose a bank to do business with. It will be cheaper for the banks. It will be profitable and painless for us. All the while the data more accurate as it is promulgated via a blockchain. Banks would only need to pay for data sold by customers who actually take out a loan, via a time-sensitive smart contract. This way the process maintains integrity. And boom, just like that, a great data reversal has occurred.

It’s possibilities like this that get me excited about the emerging blockchain era – it seems it is possible to get the internet we always dreamed of. Now it’s time for us to get building the world we want to live in.

What data and fences have in common

We’ve entered the age of the Data Imperialist. New world powers are taking resources before those handing them over have realised what is happening. Once again, it seems that the future is repeating the past.

Most things we value economically in the modern economy are quite far removed from real needs. We invent new asset classes that are things we don’t really need – unlike food, shelter, medicine and education. Where it gets tricky is when something which was once free, fluid and unencumbered gets claimed by a commercial interest. When it does happen though, the pattern is always the same.

  • Those it gets taken from don’t understand the ‘market value’ of what is being taken
  • It gets taken by using tools the others haven’t got.

Into this category we can put land, gold, oil and now we can add data.

Think back to when imperialists sailed to far off lands to plunder the resources from traditional owners. They put fences around things. A fence to someone who’d never seen one would seem like a very strange idea. The mere concept of anyone actually owning land unheard of in many cultures. There’s no value in a fence because no one can own the land! But of course, those who trespassed or tried to access the now fenced off resource were met with gunpowder – a tool the victims didn’t have access to, let alone grasp its power at first.

Online privacy and security are a lot like this. We’ve literally allowed the data imperialists to put a data fence around our lives. While we have known for a long time that knowledge is power, few people in the past 20 years have truly understood how much information we’re really handing over, and the many ways it can be leveraged economically. They, like the conquistadors before them, took it from us before we realised and they too did it with tools we didn’t understand.

Their favourite hack – hiding the truth in 20,000 word long legalese designed to obfuscate. Oh, and they offered us the sugar hit of emotional candy along the way so we could all ‘connect’ on-line – as if that wasn’t already possible with the old school internet. They’ve successfully stooged us out of the most important resource in the emerging economy – data. Henry Ford and his factory friends pulled the same trick on us 100+ years ago when he convinced us to trade in our artisanal skills and independence for highly paid piece labour. Privacy and security are the workplace health and safety of the digital era. The data wars are only just starting and we’ve got to fight back. But how?

Here’s a few ideas to get us started:

  1. Remember everything digital is traceable and on file, forever. There is no anonymity. Never put anything online you wouldn’t want on the front page of a newspaper.
  2. Don’t be platform lazy. Yeah, I know it’s easier to connect on social media platforms… but go direct when possible. Talk on the phone, get your own email client, text – heck, get some analogue FaceTime happening.
  3. Data is labour. We need to socialise the idea that our data should be our personal copyright. Corporations should be renting from us. We created it, we ought own it and it is an own-able resource – if we will it to be.
  4. We have to put our hands up high on what we won’t accept. Data breaches are unacceptable and we should punish platforms with serious consequences – and make sure it’s as unacceptable as pollution and unsafe work practices.
  5. We need to push our Governments to embrace blockchain technology and crypto-economics to enable valued, yet safe, use of data. We need to push them to protect us and our data when they have access to it and protect us from corporations who are data deceivers.

Data like any asset can and should be used for good – where the benefits are shared and protected by those whom create it.  And this is why Blockchain is the most important technology of the past 20 years. It makes the above things possible. And let’s never forget this – our Governments are no different to School yards. It’s a popularity contest. They do what gets them voted back in. What this means is that all we have to do is make these ideas popular.

Steve.

What data doesn’t understand

It’s true data, and our new found ability to sift through large volumes of it, has come with many benefits: fraud detection, genomics, natural language processing to name a few. But, data doesn’t get humanity. It’s just a reflector, not the director. As a tool it has certain biasses built into it. One of which is its ability to take the wide, and make it narrow. It’s also great at finding correlation between the disparate. You know data what it isn’t good at? Detecting boredom.

We humans are weird beings and right at the point when data might tell us something is heading a certain way, we about face, and go in the exact opposite direction, often quicker than anyone expects. Probably because we love variety, nuance and something a little different.

It turns out that computers don’t actually understand – they calculate. The word computer itself used to be a job title of people who literally added things up. The large majority of algorithms we employ calculate the probability of something. That probability calculation will be based on the stack of code it feeds from. And the larger that stack, the deeper and more hidden the bias will be inside it. What this means for us, is that when we change our mind, on a whim, ‘the system’ won’t see it coming.

The stimulus we get as humans comes from the real and messy world we we live in. So much of which still sits outside of the data economy, even with all the tracking we do these days. So what does this mean for us? It means that unexpected change is inevitable, and the data wont tells us it’s coming. We need to look for it ourselves and measure it from personal human experience. Variety is one of the great human desires, and just when something is peaking in popularity, we decide to leave the building for no real reason other than the fact we are human.

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Why we need to rebuild the internet

In life and in business I believe in a few guiding principles. Two I like in particular are very common across cultures:

  1. Create more value than you extract.
  2. Treat people the way you’d like to be treated.

I imagine everyone reading this would agree. Now let’s consider this juxtaposition:

What a CEO says: “We want to build a more open and connected society”

What a CEO does: Buy the 4 houses surrounding his in order to protect his own privacy.

Someone who sells privacy for a living, often without permission and tricks his customers into giving up more than they understand, wants to protect his own. The fact that I don’t need to mention the person’s name is telling. Well, you might say it’s not a fair comparison between how someone behaves in their digital and offline lives. Fair call, but consider the fact that up until last week the person in question could delete private messages from another person’s private inbox, after the messages had been sent to and received by the other party. A privacy feature he wasn’t generous enough to give to his users. Oh, by the way, I can think of another industry where ‘dealers’ call their customers ‘users’. We both get our minds messed with in ways we can’t understand and end up addicted and worse off.

It’s a well known technological trope that data is the new gold, an entirely new class of asset. And that’s where the problem lies. This asset class is so new, few people understand it. We could liken this to the age of discovery when imperialists took control of abundant natural resources, resources which were viewed by the conquered as something no one could really own or control.

The net result is that the greatest wealth creation event in the history of humanity. The Internet has resulted in a massive centralisation and control, and spawned the era of the data imperialist. Even those who understood the power of data have far less chance of leveraging it on their own, because of the dramatic impact of network effects, and zero cost digital transfers both have in creating a winner takes all economy. To quantify: the net worth of the 4 founders of the top 3 technology companies since the dot com era have a collective net worth of $281 billion dollars as of today.

The internet needs saving.

What started out in all probability as altruism – the dream of a free web funded by advertising, has become a nightmare panopticon and it’s time we pushed back. Hard.

Technology stalwart and all round good guy Jaron Lanier says we can no longer call these companies Social Networks, but ‘Behaviour Modification Empires’. Services which use algorithms to make us stay longer by giving us sugar hits of fear, jealously and other powerful negative emotions. Lanier also says that we can’t have a society where if two people want to communicate, it can only happen if it is financed by a 3rd party or corporation selling advertising. It’s worth investing 15 minutes of your time to hear him talk about it here.

But I will add a little more to his talk… the missing piece.  Personally, I hope Facebook isn’t fixed. It’s only when something stays broken that we get a chance to put something better in its place. For me that would be a social network that no one owns or controls – something funded by the people using it, without a financial corporate imperative shaping our most valued human asset – our interactions.

We need each other, Steve.

Expertise during a data explosion

No one really knows how much data is being created in the world. We know that most of the data that exists was created in the past couple of years. Some people say it is doubling every year. The reason that this is even possible comes back to lower barriers of entry. Until we had low cost computing, internet connectivity, and more recently the smart phone, data was isolated, segmented and verified by institutions who were given the authority to create, curate and store it. Authority in this instance was a function of finance. The cost of creating permanent information was expensive – print materials, broadcast hardware, costs of distribution all limited the ability for information to be created and shared. It meant there was far less data, but it also meant we knew where to look to find what was available.

Data has moved from being something which was structured, in know-able places, to something which is unstructured, distributed and without authority. It’s now organic, alive and rapidly evolving. Authority and tools go hand in hand. Now that the tools of creating and storing data are omnipresent and almost free, their is no authority governing it. This means two important things:

  • It will continue to increase exponentially
  • Knowledge no longer has a boundary

So how can anyone be an expert on anything?

In this environment expertise has no choice but to change. No one can know everything, even in the most niche of subjects. If we add to this the idea that the major factors of production are shared – that being 1’s and 0’s – then the potential for cross fertilisation of ideas is infinite. What is true today might be kiboshed tomorrow by new inventions, ideas and collaborations.

The new art of expertise has to become this – knowing where to look and who to rely on.

While we’ll never know everything that has ‘just happened’ and we’ll never be able to predict exactly what is next, we can study the trajectory. Pattern recognition, is quickly becoming more important than knowing. What experts will need to be able to determine in the future is how likely something is, how to assess the sentiment of future behaviour and how to be able to verify what just happened. Expertise is becoming a weird kind of reverse archaeology.

Increasingly what we need to know is how to work with the tools to uncover knowledge as it is created.  The age of memorising things for future reference is quickly becoming obsolete.

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Come join me Tuesday Night in Melbourne to dig into your future and some of The Lessons School Forgot – register here. See you then, Steve.

We need to open up the digital black box

Imagine for a moment you bought something at the supermarket, a packaged food you intend to eat and it didn’t have an ingredient list, let alone a nutrition panel. You’d think twice about consuming it wouldn’t you? In the early days of packaged foods this was the way things were. It was exactly as explained – we had no ideas what was in the box. Before the early 20th century food and medicine we consumed was a total crap shoot. There were literally no regulations, or information as to what we were all consuming if it wasn’t in its raw form. Eventually, we collectively decided this wasn’t good enough.

Boxes filled with secret ingredients, sometimes dangerous ones, developed by the manufacturers so they could sell more and keep it shelf stable longer, were marketed as natural and safe. Quite often the labelling on food and medicines was down right dangerous. The changes didn’t come easy though, manufacturers (Coca Cola, Kelloggs, Phillip Morris, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Nestle to name a few) not only sought to mislead to sell more, but often claimed the ingredients in the box were some kind of trade secret that, were valid in a capitalist society. A black box of secrets? –  Sounds a little like something that is going on today doesn’t it?

mind control

Everything we consume in digital form today comes with its own secret set of ingredients. We are ingesting information into our minds that might shape our lives as much as food does. Yet, for some reason we don’t question the opacity of the digital black box. We need to also to be smart enough to realise that shaping peoples minds could well be more dangerous than addictive and unhealthy ingredients are. They don’t just shape us, but they can reshape geo-politics as well, maybe even democracy. The lessons of history are easy to forget, especially when others fought the battles for us before we were born. It’s possible to take for granted the toil undertaken for the civility we bask in today.

A new revolution has arrived with a new set of corporations designing our consumption patterns, and just like before, the behaviour is the same – the large companies at the front line, call ‘competitive secret’ in order to profit seek against an unaware public. We instead need to push back and ensure that the society being built, with a meta structure on top of it, is one we want to live in.

It’s time we exposed the ingredients in the algorithms that shape our digital existence. We need this in the same way we know ingredients in packaged food. Algorithmic Nutrition Panels might just be the start of a more informed society. People might finally understand why they’re addicted to Facebook or Buzzfeed and why they see what they do on the screens in in their lives. It might just start a movement, one in which people realise what they’re actually giving away and why it matters.

What goes in our mind, is at least as important as what enters our mouths. It’s worth mentioning here that we are only on the precipice of the data deluge. The pending trillion sensor economy made possible the internet of things will mean every human interaction involves an algorithm. Algorithms as trade secrets, will increasingly shape our world and our lives, for as long as we tolerate it.

It’s been nearly 10 years since I owned a phone

I still have a device which I can use to make calls, but it’s not a phone. I and most other people these days have a globally interconnected super computer. It so happens to have a feature which can make calls. Simple evidence resides in the number of times we interact with it daily, versus the number of calls – they are almost insignificant. We touch our phone hundreds of times a day and we might make a few calls. (Count for the next few hours if you don’t believe me). Here‘s a picture of the last phone I owned below.

Nokia Brick

It’s hard to believe the iphone is about to have it’s 10th birthday on June 29, 2017. Since the iPhone disrupted the economic time continuum –  we have literally have NASA in our pockets. A personal super computer that 20 years ago it would’ve literally cost several millions dollars. And today, it is free. We get the mobile phone for the same price of around $50 a month, but with the super computer as the free prize inside. And while we all know it has impacted some obvious industries like news, media, music, mapping and photography to name a few, it is much more than that. It’s a bit like a new Neo Cortex which is why we feel so uncomfortable leaving home without it. I personally believe it is the start of technology merging with our biology. I’m certain it will enter our body, we can already see the trajectory of the technology getting smaller and smaller and closer and closer to our bodies. We already have wires coming out of it, and directly into us, eventually they’ll be attached permanently, and soon after the tech will aside inside us.

While this phone super computer has numerous life benefits that come with it – it isn’t without it’s own set of externalities.

The Privacy Fallacy

“If you don’t do anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about with privacy.”

We’ve all heard that before and there are many problems associated with this proposition.

Firstly, it has attached to it a basic assumption that only illegal or immoral activities can be used against us. Secondly, many people are forgetting that our phone super computer tracks many activities without us inputting or extracting any data at all. It has a number of sensors which (Ironically like a human senses never stop working) – they are constantly listening in the background to our environment and sending back information to big brother. Accelerometers, Gyrometers, GPS locators, Altimeters, Light sensors, Cameras, Sound receptors. The GPS even works when the phone is off the grid. And here is my personal favourite; Siri records everything we’re saying, all the time, if we agreed to its terms, and most of us do without even reading them. Some of the stuff it knows outside of our web surfing, data input and info requested can be of the most value to governments and corporations.

The problem with the privacy issue, is that data can be converted into discrimination. For example, an innocent person could be put on a watch list because unbeknowns to them they associate with say a hacktavist. Just by their phones super computers being in close proximity to each other frequently, a person could be falsely targeted. It’s also easy to see how various forms of insurance could be refused based on private data collected. But we won’t know what the limits of these discriminations until they have already happened. No one has read the back of the cereal box…. (The Terms & Conditions). We are literally playing a game we don’t know the rules to, and this is a very dangerous proposition indeed.

We can’t stop it, but we need to civilise it

We can never stop data tracking. No technology in history, regardless of its externalities has been able to be stopped once released. Especially if short term benefits are greater than long term complications. So we need to civilise the internet – like we civilised cities and factories in the industrial era. We need the equivalent of workplace health & safety, car design road rules and environmental protections, but for peoples data. And we cannot leave that up to the corporate owners of the platforms we use – like all companies their basic incentive is to maximise short term shareholder wealth. What we have now, is each company setting its own laws of usage which is as crazy as it sounds. Especially when participating in the modern economy requires us to use the platforms.

We need a macro generic set of Terms & Conditions for all digital services – where companies only report exceptions. They need to be written in language everyone can understand with consequences laid out. it needs to be taught in schools and in society. If we as the collective users of the internet have the wisdom to force this, then the utopian dream of the web can recommence.