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When some big outfit with a vested interest in violating your privacy says they are only trying to save small business, grab your wallet. Because the game they’re playing is misdirection away from what they really want.

The most recent case in point is Facebook, which ironically holds the world’s largest database on individual human interests while also failing to understand jack shit about personal boundaries.

This became clear when Facebook placed the ad above and others like it in major publications recently, and mostly made bad news for itself. We saw the same kind of thing in early 2014, when the IAB ran a similar campaign against Mozilla, using ads like this:

That one was to oppose Mozilla’s decision to turn on Do Not Track by default in its Firefox browser. Never mind that Do Not Track was never more than a polite request for websites to not be infected with a beacon, like those worn by marked animals, so one can be tracked away from the website. Had the advertising industry and its dependents in publishing simply listened to that signal, and respected it, we might never have had the GDPR or the CCPA, both of which are still failing at the same mission. (But, credit where due: the GDPR and the CCPA have at least forced websites to put up insincere and misleading opt-out popovers in front of every website whose lawyers are scared of violating the letter—but never the spirit—of those and other privacy laws.)

The IAB succeeded in its campaign against Mozilla and Do Not Track; but the the victory was Pyrrhic, because users decided to install ad blockers instead, which by 2015 was the largest boycott in human history. Plus a raft of privacy laws, with more in the pipeline.

We also got Apple on our side. That’s good, but not good enough.

What we need are working tools of our own. Examples: Global Privacy Control (and all the browsers and add-ons mentioned there), Customer Commons#NoStalking term, the IEEE’s P7012 – Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms, and other approaches to solving business problems from the our side—rather than always from the corporate one.

In those movies, we’ll win.

Because if only Apple wins, we still lose.

Dammit, it’s still about what The Cluetrain Manifesto said in the first place, in this “one clue” published almost 21 years ago:

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.
we are human beings — and out reach exceeds your grasp.
deal with it.

We have to make them deal. All of them. Not just Apple. We need code, protocols and standards, and not just regulations.

All the projects linked to above can use some help, plus others I’ll list here too if you write to me with them. (Comments here only work for Harvard email addresses, alas. I’m doc at searls dot com.)

If you listen to Episode 49: Parler, Ownership, and Open Source of the latest Reality 2.0 podcast, you’ll learn that I was blindsided at first by the topic of Parler, which has lately become a thing. But I caught up fast, even getting a Parler account not long after the show ended. Because I wanted to see what’s going on.

Though self-described as “the world’s town square,” Parler is actually a centralized social platform built for two purposes: 1) completely free speech; and 2) creating and expanding echo chambers.

The second may not be what Parler’s founders intended (see here), but that’s how social media algorithms work. They group people around engagements, especially likes. (I think, for our purposes here, that algorithmically nudged engagement is a defining feature of social media platforms as we understand them today. That would exclude, for example, Wikipedia or a popular blog or newsletter with lots of commenters. It would include, say, Reddit and Linkedin, because algorithms.)

Let’s start with recognizing that the smallest echo chamber in these virtual places is our own, comprised of the people we follow and who follow us. Then note that our visibility into other virtual spaces is limited by what’s shown to us by algorithmic nudging, such as by Twitter’s trending topics.

The main problem with this is not knowing what’s going on, especially inside other echo chambers. There are also lots of reasons for not finding out. For example, my Parler account sits idle because I don’t want Parler to associate me with any of the people it suggests I follow, soon as I show up:

l also don’t know what to make of this, which is the only other set of clues on the index page:

Especially since clicking on any of them brings up the same or similar top results, which seem to have nothing to do with the trending # topic. Example:

Thus endeth my research.

But serious researchers should be able to see what’s going on inside the systems that produce these echo chambers, especially Facebook’s.

The problem is that Facebook and other social networks are shell games, designed to make sure nobody knows exactly what’s going on, but feels okay with it, because they’re hanging with others who agree on the basics.

The design principle at work here is obscurantism—”the practice of deliberately presenting information in an imprecise, abstruse manner designed to limit further inquiry and understanding.”

To put the matter in relief, consider a nuclear power plant:

(Photo of kraftwerk Grafenrheinfeld, 2013, by Avda. Licensed CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Nothing here is a mystery. Or, if there is one, professional inspectors will be dispatched to solve it. In fact, the whole thing is designed from the start to be understandable, and its workings accountable to a dependent public.

Now look at a Facebook data center:

What it actually does is pure mystery, by design, to those outside the company. (And hell, to most, maybe all, of the people inside the company.) No inspector arriving to look at a rack of blinking lights in that place is going to know either. What Facebook looks like to you, to me, to anybody, is determined by a pile of discoveries, both on and off of Facebook’s site and app, around who you are and what to machines you seem interested in, and an algorithmic process that is not accountable to you, and impossible for anyone, perhaps including Facebook itself, to fully explain.

All societies, and groups within societies, are echo chambers. And, because they cohere in isolated (and isolating) ways it is sometimes hard for societies to understand each other, especially when they already have prejudicial beliefs about each other. Still, without the further influence of social media, researchers can look at and understand what’s going on.

Over in the digital world, which overlaps with the physical one, we at least know that social media amplifies prejudices. But, though it’s obvious by now that this is what’s going on, doing something to reduce or eliminate the production and amplification of prejudices is damn near impossible when the mechanisms behind it are obscure by design.

This is why I think these systems need to be turned inside out, so researchers can study them. I don’t know how to make that happen; but I do know there is nothing more large and consequential in the world that is also absent of academic inquiry. And that ain’t right.

BTW, if Facebook, Twitter, Parler or other social networks actually are opening their algorithmic systems to academic researchers, let me know and I’ll edit this piece accordingly.

Northern Red-Tail Hawk

On Quora the question went, If you went from an IQ of 135+ to 100, how would it feel?

Here’s how I answered::::

I went through that as a kid, and it was no fun.

In Kindergarten, my IQ score was at the top of the bell curve, and they put me in the smart kid class. By 8th grade my IQ score was down at the middle of the bell curve, my grades sucked, and my other standardized test scores (e.g. the Iowa) were terrible. So the school system shunted me from the “academic” track (aimed at college) to the “general” one (aimed at “trades”).

To the school I was a failure. Not a complete one, but enough of one for the school to give up on aiming me toward college. So, instead of sending me on to a normal high school, they wanted to send me to a “vocational-technical” school where boys learned to operate machinery and girls learned “secretarial” skills.

But in fact the school failed me, as it did countless other kids who adapted poorly to industrialized education: the same industrial system that still has people believing IQ tests are a measure of anything other than how well somebody answers a bunch puzzle questions on a given day.

Fortunately, my parents believed in me, even though the school had given up. I also believed in myself, no matter what the school thought. Like Walt Whitman, I believed “I was never measured, and never will be measured.” Walt also gifted everyone with these perfect lines (from Song of Myself):

I know I am solid and sound.
To me the converging objects of the universe
perpetually flow.

All are written to me,
and I must get what the writing means…
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept
by a carpenter’s compass,

I know that I am august,
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself
or be understood.
I see that the elementary laws never apologize.

Whitman argued for the genius in each of us that moves in its own orbit and cannot be encompassed by industrial measures, such as standardized tests that serve an institution that would rather treat students like rats in their mazes than support the boundless appetite for knowledge with which each of us is born—and that we keep if it doesn’t get hammered out of us by normalizing systems.

It amazes me that half a century since I escaped from compulsory schooling’s dehumanizing wringer, the system is largely unchanged. It might even be worse. (“Study says standardized testing is overwhelming nation’s public schools,” writes The Washington Post.)

To detox ourselves from belief in industrialized education, the great teacher John Taylor Gatto gives us The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher, which summarizes what he was actually paid to teach:

  1. Confusion — “Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach disconnections. I teach too much: the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parents’ nights, staff-development days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers my students may never see again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world….What do any of these things have to do with each other?”
  2. Class position — “I teach that students must stay in the class where they belong. I don’t know who decides my kids belong there but that’s not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class. Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered by schools has increased dramatically, until it is hard to see the human beings plainly under the weight of numbers they carry. Numbering children is a big and very profitable undertaking, though what the strategy is designed to accomplish is elusive. I don’t even know why parents would, without a fight, allow it to be done to their kids. In any case, again, that’s not my business. My job is to make them like it, being locked in together with children who bear numbers like their own.”
  3. Indifference — “I teach children not to care about anything too much, even though they want to make it appear that they do. How I do this is very subtle. I do it by demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor. It’s heartwarming when they do that; it impresses everyone, even me. When I’m at my best I plan lessons very carefully in order to produce this show of enthusiasm. But when the bell rings I insist that they stop whatever it is that we’ve been working on and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of. Students never have a complete experience except on the installment plan. Indeed, the lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?
  4. Emotional dependency — “By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld by any authority without appeal, because rights do not exist inside a school — not even the right of free speech, as the Supreme Court has ruled — unless school authorities say they do. As a schoolteacher, I intervene in many personal decisions, issuing a pass for those I deem legitimate, or initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that threatens my control. Individuality is constantly trying to assert itself among children and teenagers, so my judgments come thick and fast. Individuality is a contradiction of class theory, a curse to all systems of classification.”
  5. Intellectual dependency — “Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I, the teacher, can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I then enforce… This power to control what children will think lets me separate successful students from failures very easily.
  6. Provisional self-esteem — “Our world wouldn’t survive a flood of confident people very long, so I teach that your self-respect should depend on expert opinion. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly report, impressive in its provision, is sent into students’ homes to signal approval or to mark exactly, down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with their children parents should be. The ecology of “good” schooling depends upon perpetuating dissatisfaction just as much as the commercial economy depends on the same fertilizer.
  7. No place to hide — “I teach children they are always watched, that each is under constant surveillance by myself and my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children, there is no private time. Class change lasts three hundred seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other or even to tattle on their own parents. Of course, I encourage parents to file their own child’s waywardness too. A family trained to snitch on itself isn’t likely to conceal any dangerous secrets. I assign a type of extended schooling called “homework,” so that the effect of surveillance, if not that surveillance itself, travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood. Disloyalty to the idea of schooling is a Devil always ready to find work for idle hands. The meaning of constant surveillance and denial of privacy is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate.”

Gatto won multiple teaching awards because he refused to teach any of those lessons. I succeeded in life by refusing to learn them as well.

All of us can succeed by forgetting those seven lessons—especially the one teaching that your own intelligence can be measured by anything other than what you do with it.

You are not a number. You are a person like no other. Be that, and refuse to contain your soul inside any institutional framework.

More Whitman:

Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams.
Now I wash the gum from your eyes.
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.

Long have you timidly waited,
holding a plank by the shore.
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again,
and nod to me and shout,
and laughingly dash your hair.

I am the teacher of athletes.
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own
proves the width of my own.
He most honors my style
who learns under it to destroy the teacher.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then. I contradict myself.
I am large. I contain multitudes.

I concentrate toward them that are nigh.
I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day’s work
and will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me.

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me.
He complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable.
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Be that hawk.

In The Web and the New Reality, which I posted on December 1, 1995 (and again a few days ago), I called that date “Reality 1.995.12,” and made twelve predictions. In this post I’ll visit how those have played out over the quarter century since then.

1. As more customers come into direct contact with suppliers, markets for suppliers will change from target populations to conversations.

Well, both. While there are many more direct conversations between demand and supply than there were in the pre-Internet world, we are more targeted than ever, now personally and not just as populations. This has turned into a gigantic problem that many of us have been talking about for a decade or more, to sadly insufficient effect.

2. Travel, ticket, advertising and PR agencies will all find new ways to add value, or they will be subtracted from market relationships that no longer require them.

I don’t recall why I grouped those four things, so let’s break them apart:

  • Little travel agencies went to hell. Giant Net-based ones thrived. See here.
  • Tickets are now almost all digital. I don’t know what a modern ticket agency does, if if any exist.
  • Advertising agencies went digital and became malignant. I’ve written about that a lot, here. All of those writings could be compressed to a pull quote from Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff: “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.”
  • PR agencies, far as I know (and I haven’t looked very far) are about the same.

3. Within companies, marketing communications will change from peripheral activities to core competencies.New media will flourish on the Web, and old media will learn to live with the Web and take advantage of it.

If we count the ascendance of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) as a success, this was a bulls-eye. However, most CMOs are all about “digital,” by which they generally mean direct response marketing. And if you didn’t skip to this item you know what I think about that.

4. Retail space will complement cyber space. Customer and technical service will change dramatically, as 800 numbers yield to URLs and hard copy documents yield to soft copy versions of the same thing… but in browsable, searchable forms.

Yep. All that happened.

5. Shipping services of all kinds will bloom. So will fulfillment services. So will ticket and entertainment sales services.

That too.

The web’s search engines will become the new yellow pages for the whole world. Your fingers will still do the walking, but they won’t get stained with ink. Same goes for the white pages. Also the blue ones.

And that.

6. The scope of the first person plural will enlarge to include the whole world. “We” may mean everybody on the globe, or any coherent group that inhabits it, regardless of location. Each of us will swing from group to group like monkeys through trees.

Oh yeah.

7. National borders will change from barricades and toll booths into speed bumps and welcome mats.

Mixed success. When I wrote this, nearly all Internet access was through telcos, so getting online away from home still required a local phone number. That’s pretty much gone. But the Internet itself is being broken into pieces. See here

8. The game will be over for what teacher John Taylor Gatto labels “the narcotic we call television.” Also for the industrial relic of compulsory education. Both will be as dead as the mainframe business. In other words: still trucking, but not as the anchoring norms they used to be.

That hasn’t happened; but self-education, home-schooling and online study of all kinds are thriving.

9. Big Business will become as anachronistic as Big Government, because institutional mass will lose leverage without losing inertia.

Well, this happened. So, no.

10. Domination will fail where partnering succeeds, simply because partners with positive sums will combine to outproduce winners and losers with zero sums.

Here’s what I meant by that.
I think more has happened than hasn’t. But, visiting the particulars requires a whole ‘nuther post.

11. Right will make might.

Nope. And this one might never happen. Hey, in 25 years one tends to become wiser.

12. And might will be mighty different.

That’s true, and in some ways that depresses me.

So, on the whole, not bad.

This is the Ostrom Memorial Lecture I gave on 9 October of last year for the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University. Here is the video. (The intro starts at 8 minutes in, and my part starts just after 11 minutes in.) I usually speak off the cuff, but this time I wrote it out, originally in outline form*, which is germane to my current collaborations with Dave Winer, father of outlining software (and, in related ways, of blogging and podcasting). So here ya go.

Intro

The movie Blade Runner was released in 1982; and was set in a future Los Angeles. Anyone here know when in the future Blade Runner is set? I mean, exactly?

The year was 2019. More precisely, next month: November.

In Blade Runner’s 2019, Los Angeles is a dark and rainy hellscape with buildings the size of mountains, flying cars, and human replicants working on off-world colonies. It also has pay phones and low-def computer screens that are vacuum tubes.

Missing is a communication system that can put everyone in the world at zero distance from everyone else, in disembodied form, at almost no cost—a system that lives on little slabs in people’s pockets and purses, and on laptop computers far more powerful than any computer, of any size, from 1982.

In other words, this communication system—the Internet—was less thinkable in 1982 than flying cars, replicants and off-world colonies. Rewind the world to 1982, and the future Internet would appear a miracle dwarfing the likes of loaves and fish.

In economic terms, the Internet is a common pool resource; but non-rivalrous and non-excludable to such an extreme that to call it a pool or a resource is to insult what makes it common: that it is the simplest possible way for anyone and anything in the world to be present with anyone and anything else in the world, at costs that can round to zero.

As a commons, the Internet encircles every person, every institution, every business, every university, every government, every thing you can name. It is no less exhaustible than presence itself. By nature and design, it can’t be tragic, any more than the Universe can be tragic.

There is also only one of it. As with the universe, it has no other examples.

As a source of abundance, the closest thing to an example the Internet might have is the periodic table. And the Internet might be even more elemental than that: so elemental that it is easy to overlook the simple fact that it is the largest goose ever to lay golden eggs.

It can, however, be misunderstood, and that’s why it’s in trouble.

The trouble it’s in is with human nature: the one that sees more value in the goose’s eggs than in the goose itself.

See, the Internet is designed to support every possible use, every possible institution, and—alas—every possible restriction, which is why enclosure is possible. People, institutions and possibilities of all kinds can be trapped inside enclosures on the Internet. I’ll describe nine of them.

Enclosures

The first enclosure is service provisioning, for example with asymmetric connection speeds. On cable connections you may have up to 400 megabits per second downstream, but still only 10 megabits per second—one fortieth of that—upstream. (By the way this is exactly what Spectrum, formerly Time Warner Cable, provides with its most expensive home service to customers in New York City.)

They do that to maximize consumption while minimizing production by those customers. You can consume all the video you want, and think you’re getting great service. But meanwhile this asymmetrical provisioning prevents production at your end. Want to put out a broadcast or a podcast from your house, to run your own email server, or to store your own video or other personal data in your own personal “cloud”? Forget it.

The Internet was designed to support infinite production by anybody of anything. But cable TV companies don’t want you to have that that power. So you don’t. The home Internet you get from your cable company is nice to have, but it’s not the whole Internet. It’s an enclosed subset of capabilities biased by and for the cable company and large upstream producers of “content.”

So, it’s golden eggs for them, but none for you. Also missing are all the golden eggs you might make possible for those companies as an active producer rather than as a passive consumer.

The second enclosure is through 5G wireless service, currently promoted by phone companies as a new generation of Internet service. The companies deploying 5G promise greater speeds and lower lag times over wireless connections; but is also clear that they want to build in as many choke points as they like, all so you can be billed for as many uses as possible.

You want gaming? Here’s our gaming package. You want cloud storage? Here’s our cloud storage package. Each of these uses will carry terms and conditions that allow some uses and prevent others. Again, this is a phone company enclosure. No cable companies are deploying 5G. They’re fine with their own enclosure.

The third enclosure is government censorship. The most familiar example is China’s. In China’s closed Internet you will find no Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Reddit. No Pandora, Spotify, Slack or Dropbox. What you will find is pervasive surveillance of everyone and everything—and ranking of people in its Social Credit System.

By March of this year, China had already punished 23 million people with low social credit scores by banning them from traveling. Control of speech has also spread to U.S. companies such as the NBA and ESPN, which are now censoring themselves as well, bowing to the wishes of the Chinese government and its own captive business partners.

The fourth enclosure is the advertising-supported commercial Internet. This is led by Google and Facebook, but also includes all the websites and services that depend on tracking-based advertising. This form of advertising, known as adtech, has in the last decade become pretty much the only kind of advertising online.

Today there are very few major websites left that don’t participate in what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, and Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger call, in their book by that title, Re-engineering Humanity. Surveillance of individuals online is now so deep and widespread that nearly every news organization is either unaware of it or afraid to talk about it—in part because the advertising they run is aimed by it.

That’s why you’ll read endless stories about how bad Facebook and Google are, and how awful it is that we’re all being tracked everywhere like marked animals; but almost nothing about how the sites publishing stories about tracking also participate in exactly the same business—and far more surreptitiously. Reporting on their own involvement in the surveillance business is a third rail they won’t grab.

I know of only one magazine that took and shook that third rail, especially in the last year and a half.  That magazine was Linux Journal, where I worked for 24 years and was serving as editor-in-chief when it was killed by its owner in August. At least indirectly that was because we didn’t participate in the surveillance economy.

The fifth enclosure is protectionism. In Europe, for example, your privacy is protected by laws meant to restrict personal data use by companies online. As a result in Europe, you won’t see the Los Angeles Times or the Washington Post in your browsers, because those publishers don’t want to cope with what’s required by the EU’s laws.

While they are partly to blame—because they wish to remain in the reader-tracking business—the laws are themselves terribly flawed—for example by urging every website to put up a “cookie notice” on pages greeting readers. In most cases clicking “accept” to the site’s cookies only gives the site permission to continue doing exactly the kind of tracking the laws are meant to prevent.

So, while the purpose of these laws is to make the Internet safer, in effect they also make its useful space smaller.

The sixth enclosure is what The Guardian calls “digital colonialism.” The biggest example of that is  Facebook.org, originally called “Free Basics” and “Internet.org”

This is a China-like subset of the Internet, offered for free by Facebook in less developed parts of the world. It consists of a fully enclosed Web, only a few dozen sites wide, each hand-picked by Facebook. The rest of the Internet isn’t there.

The seventh enclosure is the forgotten past. Today the World Wide Web, which began as a kind of growing archive—a public set of published goods we could browse as if it were a library—is being lost. Forgotten. That’s because search engines are increasingly biased to index and find pages from the present and recent past, and by following the tracks of monitored browsers. It’s forgetting what’s old. Archival goods are starting to disappear, like snow on the water.

Why? Ask the algorithm.

Of course, you can’t. That brings us to our eighth enclosure: algorithmic opacity.

Consider for a moment how important power plants are, and how carefully governed they are as well. Every solar, wind, nuclear, hydro and fossil fuel power production system in the world is subject to inspection by whole classes of degreed and trained professionals.

There is nothing of the sort for the giant search engine and social networks of the world. Google and Facebook both operate dozens of data centers, each the size of many Walmart stores. Yet the inner workings of those data centers are nearly absent of government oversight.

This owes partly to the speed of change in what these centers do, but more to the simple fact that what they do is unknowable, by design. You can’t look at rows of computers with blinking lights in many acres of racks and have the first idea of what’s going on in there.

I would love to see research, for example, on that last enclosure I listed: on how well search engines continue to index old websites. Or to do anything. The whole business is as opaque as a bowling ball with no holes.

I’m not even sure you can find anyone at Google who can explain exactly why its index does one thing or another, for any one person or another. In fact, I doubt Facebook is capable of explaining why any given individual sees any given ad. They aren’t designed for that. And the algorithm itself isn’t designed to explain itself, perhaps even to the employees responsible for it.

Or so I suppose.

In the interest of moving forward with research on these topics, I invite anyone at Google, Facebook, Bing or Amazon to help researchers at institutions such as the Ostrom Workshop, and to explain exactly what’s going on inside their systems, and to provide testable and verifiable ways to research those goings-on.

The ninth and worst enclosure is the one inside our heads. Because, if we think the Internet is something we use by grace of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and “providers” such as phone and cable companies, we’re only helping all those companies contain the Internet’s usefulness inside their walled gardens.

Not understanding the Internet can result in problems similar to ones we suffer by not understanding common pool resources such as the atmosphere, the oceans, and the Earth itself.

But there is a difference between common pool resources in the natural world, and the uncommon commons we have with the Internet.

See, while we all know that common-pool resources are in fact not limitless—even when they seem that way—we don’t have the same knowledge of the Internet, because its nature as a limitless non-thing is non-obvious.

For example, we know common pool resources in the natural world risk tragic outcomes if our use of them is ungoverned, either by good sense or governance systems with global reach. But we don’t know that the Internet is limitless by design, or that the only thing potentially tragic about it is how we restrict access to it and use of it, by enclosures such as the nine I just listed.

So my thesis here is this: if we can deeply and fully understand what the Internet is, why it is fully important, and why it is in danger of enclosure, we can also understand why, ten years after Lin Ostrom won a Nobel prize for her work on the commons, that work may be exactly what we need to save the Internet as a boundless commons that can support countless others.

The Internet

We’ll begin with what makes the Internet possible: a protocol.

A protocol is a code of etiquette for diplomatic exchanges between computers. A form of handshake.

What the Internet’s protocol does is give all the world’s digital devices and networks a handshake agreement about how to share data between any point A and any point B in the world, across any intermediary networks.

When you send an email, or look at a website, anywhere in the world, the route the shared data takes can run through any number of networks between the two. You might connect from Bloomington to Denver through Chicago, Tokyo and Mexico City. Then, two minutes later, through Toronto and Miami. Some packets within your data flows may also be dropped along the way, but the whole session will flow just fine because the errors get noticed and the data re-sent and re-assembled on the fly.

Oddly, none of this is especially complicated at the technical level, because what I just described is pretty much all the Internet does. It doesn’t concern itself with what’s inside the data traffic it routes, who is at the ends of the connections, or what their purposes are—any more than gravity cares about what it attracts.

Beyond the sunk costs of its physical infrastructure, and the operational costs of keeping the networks themselves standing up, the Internet has no first costs at its protocol level, and it adds no costs along the way. It also has no billing system.

In all these ways the Internet is, literally, neutral. It also doesn’t need regulators or lawmakers to make it neutral. That’s just its nature.

The Internet’s protocol called is called TCP/IP, and by using it, all the networks of the world subordinate their own selfish purposes.

This is what makes the Internet’s protocol generous and supportive to an absolute degree toward every purpose to which it is put. It is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

In retrospect we might say the big networks within the Internet—those run by phone and cable companies, governments and universities—agreed to participate in the Internet because it was so obviously useful that there was no reason not to.

But the rising-tide nature of the Internet was not obvious to all of them at first. In retrospect, they didn’t realize that the Internet was a Trojan Horse, wheeled through their gates by geeks who looked harmless but in fact were bringing the world a technical miracle.

I can support that claim by noting that even though phone and cable companies of the world now make trillions of dollars because of it, they never would have invented it.

Two reasons for that. One is because it was too damn simple. The other is because they would have started with billing. And not just billing you and me. They would have wanted to bill each other, and not use something invented by another company.

A measure of the Internet’s miraculous nature is that actually billing each other would have been so costly and complicated that what they do with each other, to facilitate the movement of data to, from, and across their networks, is called peering. In other words, they charge each other nothing.

Even today it is hard for the world’s phone and cable companies—and even its governments, which have always been partners of a sort—to realize that the Internet became the world-wide way to communicate because it didn’t start with billing.

Again, all TCP/IP says is that this is a way for computers, networks, and everything connected to them, to get along. And it succeeded, producing instant worldwide peace among otherwise competing providers of networks and services. It made every network operator involved win a vast positive-sum game almost none of them knew they were playing. And most of them still don’t.

You know that old joke in which the big fish says to the little fish, “Hi guys, how’s the water?” and one of the little fish says to the other “What’s water?” In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a legendary commencement address at Kenyon College that I highly recommend, titled “This is water.”

I suspect that, if Wallace were around today, he’d address his point to our digital world.

Human experience

Those of you who already know me are aware that my wife Joyce is as much a companion and collaborator of mine as Vincent Ostrom was of Lin. I bring this up because much of of this talk is hers, including this pair of insights about the Internet: that it has no distance, and also no gravity.

Think about it: when you are on the Internet with another person—for example if you are in a chat or an online conference—there is no functional distance between you and the other person. One of you may be in Chicago and the other in Bangalore. But if the Internet is working, distance is gone. Gravity is also gone. Your face may be right-side-up on the other person’s screen, but it is absent of gravity. The space you both occupy is the other person’s two-dimensional rectangle. Even if we come up with holographic representations of ourselves, we are still incorporeal “on” the Internet. (I say “on” because we need prepositions to make sense of how things are positioned in the world. Yet our limited set of physical-world prepositions—over, under around, through, beside, within and the rest—misdirect our attention away from our disembodied state in the digital one.)

Familiar as that disembodied state may be to all of us by now, it is still new to human experience and inadequately informed by our experience as embodied creatures. It is also hard for us to see both what our limitations are, and how limitless we are at the same time.

Joyce points out that we are also highly adaptive creatures, meaning that eventually we’ll figure out what it means to live where there is no distance or gravity, much as astronauts learn to live as weightless beings in space.

But in the meantime, we’re having a hard time seeing the nature and limits of what’s good and what’s bad in this new environment. And that has to do, at least in part, on forms of enclosure in that world—and how we are exploited within private spaces where we hardly know we are trapped.

In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan says every new medium, every new technology, “works us over completely.” Those are his words: works us over completely. Such as now, with digital technology, and the Internet.

I was talking recently with a friend about where our current digital transition ranks among all the other transitions in history that each have a formal cause. Was becoming ditital the biggest thing since the industrial revolution? Since movable type? Writing? Speech?

No, he said. “It’s the biggest thing since oxygenation.”

In case you weren’t there, or weren’t paying attention in geology class, oxygenation happened about 2.5 billion years ago. Which brings us to our next topic:

Institutions

Journalism is just one example of a trusted institution that is highly troubled in the digital world.

It worked fine in a physical world where truth-tellers who dig into topics and reported on them with minimized prejudice were relatively scarce yet easy to find, and to trust. But in a world flooded with information and opinion—a world where everyone can be a reporter, a publisher, a producer, a broadcaster, where the “news cycle” has the lifespan of a joke, and where news and gossip have become almost indistinguishable while being routed algorithmically to amplify prejudice and homophily, journalism has become an anachronism: still important, but all but drowning in a flood of biased “content” paid for by surveillance-led adtech.

People are still hungry for good information, of course, but our appetites are too easily fed by browsing through the surfeit of “content” on the Internet, which we can easily share by text, email or social media. Even if we do the best we can to share trustworthy facts and other substances that sound like truth, we remain suspended in a techno-social environment we mostly generate and re-generate ourselves. Kind of like our ancestral life forms made sense of the seas they oxygenated, long ago.

The academy is another institution that’s troubled in our digital time. After all, education on the Internet is easy to find. Good educational materials are easy to produce and share. For example, take Kahn Academy, which started with one guy tutoring his cousin though online videos.

Authority must still be earned, but there are now countless non-institutional ways to earn it. Credentials still matter, but less than they used to, and not in the same ways. Ad hoc education works in ways that can be cheap or free, while institutions of higher education remain very expensive. What happens when the market for knowledge and know-how starts moving past requirements for advanced degrees that might take students decades of their lives to pay off?

For one example of that risk already at work, take computer programming.

Which do you think matters more to a potential employer of programmers—a degree in computer science or a short but productive track record? For example, by contributing code to the Linux operating system?

To put this in perspective, Linux and operating systems like it are inside nearly every smart thing that connects to the Internet, including TVs, door locks, the world’s search engines, social network, laptops and mobile phones. Nothing could be more essential to computing life.

At the heart of Linux is what’s called the kernel. For code to get into the kernel, it has to pass muster with other programmers who have already proven their worth, and then through testing and debugging. If you’re looking for a terrific programmer, everyone contributing to the Linux kernel is well-proven. And there are thousands of them.

Now here’s the thing. It not only doesn’t matter whether or not those people have degrees in computer science, or even if they’ve had any formal training. What matters, for our purposes here, is that, to a remarkable degree, many of them don’t have either. Or perhaps most of them.

I know a little about this because, in the course of my work at Linux Journal, I would sometimes ask groups of alpha Linux programmers where they learned to code. Almost none told me “school.” Most were self-taught or learned from each other.

My point here is that the degree to which the world’s most essential and consequential operating system depends on the formal education of its makers is roughly zero.

See, the problem for educational institutions in the digital world is that most were built to leverage scarcity: scarce authority, scarce materials, scarce workspace, scarce time, scarce credentials, scarce reputation, scarce anchors of trust. To a highly functional degree we still need and depend on what only educational institutions can provide, but that degree is a lot lower than it used to be, a lot more varied among disciplines, and it risks continuing to decline as time goes on.

It might help at this point to see gravity in some ways as a problem the Internet solves. Because gravity is top-down. It fosters hierarchy and bell curves, sometimes where we need neither.

Absence of gravity instead fosters heterarchy and polycentrism. And, as we know, at the Ostrom Workshop perhaps better than anywhere, commons are good examples of heterarchy and polycentrism at work.

Knowledge Commons

In the first decade of our new millenium, Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess—already operating in our new digital age—extended the commons category to include knowledge, calling it a complex ecosystem that operates as a common: a shared resource subject to social dilemmas.

They looked at ease of access to digital forms of knowledge and easy new ways to store, access and share knowledge as a common. They also looked at the nature of knowledge and its qualities of non-rivalry and non-excludability, which were both unlike what characterizes a natural commons, with its scarcities of rivalrous and excludable goods.

A knowledge commons, they said, is characterized by abundance. This is one way what Yochai Benkler calls Commons Based Peer Production on the Internet is both easy and rampant, giving us, among many other things, both the free software and open source movements in code development and sharing, plus the Internet and the Web.

Commons Based Peer Production also demonstrates how collaboration and non-material incentives can produce better quality products, and less social friction in the course of production.

I’ve given Linux as one example of Commons Based Peer Production. Others are Wikipedia and the Internet Archive. We’re also seeing it within the academy, for example with Indiana University’s own open archives, making research more accessible and scholarship more rich and productive.

Every one of those examples comports with Lin Ostrom’s design principles:

  1. clearly defined group boundaries;
  2. rules governing use of common goods within local needs and conditions;
  3. participation in modifying rules by those affected by the rules;
  4. accessible and low cost ways to resolve disputes;
  5. developing a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior;
  6. graduated sanctions for rule violators;
  7. and governing responsibility in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

But there is also a crisis with Commons Based Peer Production on the Internet today.

Programmers who ten or fifteen years ago would not participate in enclosing their own environments are doing exactly that, for example with 5G, which is designed to put the phone companies in charge of what we can do on the Internet.

The 5G-enclosed Internet might be faster and more handy in many ways, the range of freedoms for each of us there will be bounded by the commercial interests of the phone companies and their partners, and subject to none of Lin’s rules for governing a commons.

Consider this: every one of the nine enclosures I listed at the beginning of this talk are enabled by programmers who either forgot or never learned about the freedom and openness that made the free and open Internet possible. They are employed in the golden egg gathering business—not in one that appreciates the goose that lays those eggs, and which their predecessors gave to us all.

But this isn’t the end of the world. We’re still at the beginning. And a good model for how to begin is—

The physical world

It is significant that all the commons the Ostroms and their colleagues researched in depth were local. Their work established beyond any doubt the importance of local knowledge and local control.

I believe demonstrating this in the digital world is our best chance of saving our digital world from the nine forms of enclosure I listed at the top of this talk.

It’s our best chance because there is no substitute for reality. We may be digital beings now, as well as physical ones. There are great advantages, even in the digital world, to operating in the here-and-now physical world, where all our prepositions still work, and our metaphors still apply.

Back to Joyce again.

In the mid ‘90s, when the Internet was freshly manifest on our home computers, I was mansplaining to Joyce how this Internet thing was finally the global village long promised by tech.

Her response was, “The sweet spot of the Internet is local.” She said that’s because local is where the physical and the virtual intersect. It’s where you can’t fake reality, because you can see and feel and shake hands with it.

She also said the first thing the Internet would obsolesce would be classified ads in newspapers. That’s because the Internet would be a better place than classifieds for parents to find a crib some neighbor down the street might have for sale. Then Craigslist came along and did exactly that.

We had an instructive experience with how the real world and the Internet work together helpfully at the local level about a year and a half ago. That’s when a giant rainstorm fell on the mountains behind Santa Barbara, where we live, and the town next door, called Montecito. This was also right after the Thomas Fire—largest at the time in recorded California history—had burned all the vegetation away, and there was a maximum risk of what geologists call a “debris flow.”

The result was the biggest debris flow in the history of the region: a flash flood of rock and mud that flowed across Montecito like lava from a volcano. Nearly two hundred homes were destroyed, and twenty-three people were killed. Two of them were never found, because it’s hard to find victims buried under what turned out to be at least twenty thousand truckloads of boulders and mud.

Right afterwards, all of Montecito was evacuated, and very little news got out while emergency and rescue workers did their jobs. Our local news media did an excellent job of covering this event as a story. But I also noticed that not much was being said about the geology involved.

So, since I was familiar with debris flows out of the mountains above Los Angeles, where they have infrastructure that’s ready to handle this kind of thing, I put up a post on my blog titled “Making sense of what happened to Montecito.” In that post I shared facts about the geology involved, and also published the only list on the Web of all the addresses of homes that had been destroyed. Visits to my blog jumped from dozens a day to dozens of thousands. Lots of readers also helped improve what I wrote and re-wrote.

All of this happened over the Internet, but it pertained to a real-world local crisis.

Now here’s the thing. What I did there wasn’t writing a story. I didn’t do it for the money, and my blog is a noncommercial one anyway. I did it to help my neighbors. I did it by not being a bystander.

I also did it in the context of a knowledge commons.

Specifically, I was respectful of boundaries of responsibility; notably those of local authorities—rescue workers, law enforcement, reporters from local media, city and county workers preparing reports, and so on. I gave much credit where it was due and didn’t step on the toes of others helping out as well.

An interesting fact about journalism there at the time was the absence of fake news. Sure, there was plenty of fingers pointing in blog comments and in social media. But it was marginalized away from the fact-reporting that mattered most. There was a very productive ecosystem of information, made possible by the Internet in everyone’s midst. And by everyone, I mean lots of very different people.

Humanity

We are learning creatures by nature. We can’t help it. And we don’t learn by freight forwarding

By that, I mean what I am doing here, and what we do with each other when we talk or teach, is not delivering a commodity called information, as if we were forwarding freight. Something much more transformational is taking place, and this is profoundly relevant to the knowledge commons we share.

Consider the word information. It’s a noun derived from the verb to inform, which in turn is derived from the verb to form. When you tell me something I don’t know, you don’t just deliver a sum of information to me. You form me. As a walking sum of all I know, I am changed by that.

This means we are all authors of each other.

In that sense, the word authority belongs to the right we give others to author us: to form us.

Now look at how much more of that can happen on our planet, thanks to the Internet, with its absence of distance and gravity.

And think about how that changes every commons we participate in, as both physical and digital beings. And how much we need guidance to keep from screwing up the commons we have, or forming the ones we don’t, or forming might have in the future—if we don’t screw things up.

A rule in technology is that what can be done will be done—until we find out what shouldn’t be done. Humans have done this with every new technology and practice from speech to stone tools to nuclear power.

We are there now with the Internet. In fact, many of those enclosures I listed are well-intended efforts to limit dangerous uses of the Internet.

And now we are at a point where some of those too are a danger.

What might be the best way to look at the Internet and its uses most sensibly?

I think the answer is governance predicated on the realization that the Internet is perhaps the ultimate commons, and subject to both research and guidance informed by Lin Ostrom’s rules.

And I hope that guides our study.

There is so much to work on: expansion of agency, sensibility around license and copyright, freedom to benefit individuals and society alike, protections that don’t foreclose opportunity, saving journalism, modernizing the academy, creating and sharing wealth without victims, de-financializing our economies… the list is very long. And I look forward to working with many of us here on answers to these and many other questions.

Thank you. 

Sources

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press, 1990

Ostrom, Elinor and Hess, Charlotte, editors. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons:
From Theory to Practice, MIT Press, 2011
https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/understanding-knowledge-commons
Full text online: https://wtf.tw/ref/hess_ostrom_2007.pdf

Paul D. Aligica and Vlad Tarko, “Polycentricity: From Polanyi to Ostrom, and Beyond” https://asp.mercatus.org/system/files/Polycentricity.pdf

Elinor Ostrom, “Coping With Tragedies of the Commons,” 1998 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7c6e/92906bcf0e590e6541eaa41ad0cd92e13671.pdf

Lee Anne Fennell, “Ostrom’s Law: Property rights in the commons,” March 3, 2011
https://www.thecommonsjournal.org/articles/10.18352/ijc.252/

Christopher W. Savage, “Managing the Ambient Trust Commons: The Economics of Online Consumer Information Privacy.” Stanford Law School, 2019. https://law.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Savage_20190129-1.pdf

 

________________

*I wrote it using—or struggling in—the godawful Outline view in Word. Since I succeeded (most don’t, because they can’t or won’t, with good reason), I’ll brag on succeeding at the subhead level:

As I’m writing this, in Febrary, 2020, Dave Winer is working on what he calls writing on rails. That’s what he gave the pre-Internet world with MORE several decades ago, and I’m helping him with now with the Internet-native kind, as a user. He explains that here. (MORE was, for me, like writing on rails. It’ll be great to go back—or forward—to that again.)

A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel –
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal –
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts it’s tumbled Head –
The Mail from Tunis – probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride –

—Emily Dickinson
(via The Poetry Foundation)

While that poem is apparently about a hummingbird, it’s the one that comes first to my mind when I contemplate the form of evanescence that’s rooted in the nature of the Internet, where all of us are here right now, as I’m writing and you’re reading this.

Because, let’s face it: the Internet is no more about anything “on” it than air is about noise, speech or anything at all. Like air, sunlight, gravity and other useful graces of nature, the Internet is good for whatever can be done with it.

Same with the Web. While the Web was born as a way to share documents at a distance (via the Internet), it was never a library, even though we borrowed the language of real estate and publishing (domains and sites with pages one could author, edit, publish, syndicate, visit and browse) to describe it. While the metaphorical framing in all those words suggests durability and permanence, they belie the inherently evanescent nature of all we call content.

Think about the words memorystorageupload, and download. All suggest that content in digital form has substance at least resembling the physical kind. But it doesn’t. It’s a representation, in a pattern of ones and zeros, recorded on a medium for as long the responsible party wishes to keep it there, or the medium survives. All those states are volatile, and none guarantee that those ones and zeroes will last.

I’ve been producing digital content for the Web since the early 90s, and for much of that time I was lulled into thinking of the digital tech as something at least possibly permanent. But then my son Allen pointed out a distinction between the static Web of purposefully durable content and what he called the live Web. That was in 2003, when blogs were just beginning to become a thing. Since then the live Web has become the main Web, and people have come to see content as writing or projections on a World Wide Whiteboard. Tweets, shares, shots and posts are mostly of momentary value. Snapchat succeeded as a whiteboard where people could share “moments” that erased themselves after one view. (It does much more now, but evanescence remains its root.)

But, being both (relatively) old and (seriously) old-school about saving stuff that matters, I’ve been especially concerned with how we can archive, curate and preserve as much as possible of what’s produced for the digital world.

Last week, for example, I was involved in the effort to return Linux Journal to the Web’s shelves. (The magazine and site, which lived from April 1994 to August 2019, was briefly down, and with it all my own writing there, going back to 1996. That corpus is about a third of my writing in the published world.) Earlier, when it looked like Flickr might go down, I worried aloud about what would become of my many-dozen-thousand photos there. SmugMug saved it (Yay!); but there is no guarantee that any Website will persist forever, in any form. In fact, the way to bet is on the mortality of everything there. (Perspective: earlier today, over at doc.blog, I posted a brief think piece about the mortality of our planet, and the youth of the Universe.)

But the evanescent nature of digital memory shouldn’t stop us from thinking about how to take better care of what of the Net and the Web we wish to see remembered for the world. This is why it’s good to be in conversation on the topic with Brewster Kahle (of archive.org), Dave Winer and other like-minded folk. I welcome your thoughts as well.

In a press release, Amazon explained why it backed out of its plan to open a new headquarters in New York City:

For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term. While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.

So, even if the economics were good, the politics were bad.

The hmm for me is why not New Jersey? Given the enormous economic and political overhead of operating in New York, I’m wondering why Amazon didn’t consider New Jersey first. Or if it’s thinking about it now.

New Jersey is cheaper and (so I gather) friendlier, at least tax-wise. It also has the country’s largest port (one that used to be in New York, bristling Manhattan’s shoreline with piers and wharves, making look like a giant paramecium) and is a massive warehousing and freight forwarding hub. In fact Amazon already has a bunch of facilities there (perhaps including its own little port on Arthur Kill). I believe there are also many more places to build on the New Jersey side. (The photo above, shot on approach to Newark Airport, looks at New York across some of those build-able areas.)

And maybe that’s the plan anyway, without the fanfare.

As it happens, I’m in the midst of reading Robert Caro‘s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Which is massive. There’s a nice summary in The Guardian here.) This helps me appreciate the power of urban planning, and how thoughtful and steel-boned opposition to some of it can be fully useful. One example of that is Jane Jacobs’ thwarting of Moses’ plan to run a freeway through Greeenwich Village. He had earlier done the same through The Bronx, with the Cross Bronx Expressway. While that road today is an essential stretch of the northeast transport corridor, at the time it was fully destructive to urban life in that part of the city—and in many ways still is.

So I try to see both sides of an issue such as this. What’s constructive and what’s destructive in urban planning are always hard to pull apart.

For an example close to home, I often wonder if it’s good that Fort Lee is now almost nothing but high-rises? This is the town my grandfather helped build (he was the head carpenter for D.W. Griffith when Fort Lee was the first Hollywood), where my father grew up climbing the Palisades for fun, and where he later put his skills to work as cable rigger, helping build the George Washington Bridge. The Victorian house Grandpa built for his family on Hoyt Avenue, and where my family lived when I was born, stood about as close to a giant new glass box called The Modern as I am from the kitchen in the apartment I’m writing this, a few blocks away from The Bridge on the other side of the Hudson. It’s paved now, by a road called Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. Remember Bridgegate? That happened right where our family home stood, in a pleasant neighborhood of which nothing remains.

Was the disappearance of that ‘hood a bad thing? Not by now, long after the neighborhood was erased and nearly everyone who lived has died or has long since moved on. Thousands more live there now than ever did when it was a grid of nice homes on quiet, tree-lined streets.

All urban developments are omelettes made of broken eggs. If you’re an egg, you’ve got reason to complain. If you’re a cook, you’d better make a damn fine omelette.

This is a game for our time. I play it on New York and Boston subways, but you can play it anywhere everybody in a crowd is staring at their personal rectangle.

I call it Rectangle Bingo.

Here’s how you play. At the moment when everyone is staring down at their personal rectangle, you shoot a pano of the whole scene. Nobody will see you because they’re not present: they’re absorbed in rectangular worlds outside their present space/time.

Then you post your pano somewhere search engines will find it, and hashtag it #RectangularBingo.

Then, together, we’ll think up some way to recognize winners.

Game?

Tags:

So I just read about “a 50th anniversary Woodstock celebration that would include TED-style talks.” Details here and here in the Gothamist.

This celebration doesn’t have the Woodstock name, but it does have the place, now called the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. Since the Woodstock name belongs to folks planning the other big Woodstock 50th birthday party, this one is called, lengthily but simply, the Bethel Woods Music and Cultural Festival.

The idea of Woodstock + TED has my head spinning, especially since I was at Woodstock (sort of) and I’m no stranger to the TED stage.

So here’s my idea: Woodstock vs. TED. Have a two-stage smackdown. Surviving Woodstock performers on one stage, and TED talkers on the other, then a playoff between the two, ending with a fight on just one stage. Imagine: burning guitars against a lecture on brain chemistry or something. Then have @CountryJoe1969 yell to the crowd, “Give me a T…”

Just doing my part. Rock on.


Photo by Marc Holstein, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tags:

fruit thought

If personal data is actually a commodity, can you buy some from another person, as if that person were a fruit stand? Would you want to?

Not yet. Or maybe not really.

Either way, that’s the idea behind the urge by some lately to claim personal data as personal property, and then to make money (in cash, tokens or cryptocurrency) by selling or otherwise monetizing it. The idea in all these cases is to somehow participate in existing (entirely extractive) commodity markets for personal data.

ProjectVRM, which I direct, is chartered to “foster development of tools and services that make customers both independent and better able to engage,” and is a big tent. That’s why on the VRM Developments Work page of the ProjectVRM wiki is a heading called Markets for Personal Data. Listed there are:

So we respect that work. We are sure to learn from it. But we also need to respect the structural problems it faces.

PROBLEM #1 is that, economically speaking, data is a public good, meaning non-rivalrous and non-excludable. (Rivalrous means consumption or use by one party prevents the same by another, and excludable means you can prevent parties that don’t pay from access to it.) Here’s a table from Linux Journal column I wrote a few years ago:

Excludability Excludability
YES NO
Rivalness YES Private good: good: e.g., food, clothing, toys, cars, products subject to value-adds between first sources and final customers Common pool resource: e.g., sea, rivers, forests, their edible inhabitants and other useful contents
Rivalness NO Club good: e.g., bridges, cable TV, private golf courses, controlled access to copyrighted works Public good: e.g., data, information, law enforcement, national defense, fire fighting, public roads, street lighting

 

PROBLEM #2 is that the nature of data as a public good also inconveniences claims that it ought to be property. Thomas Jefferson explained this in his 1813 letter to Isaac MacPherson:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation

Of course Jefferson never heard of data. But what he says about “the thinking power called an idea,” and how ideas are like fire, is important for us to get our heads around amidst the rising chorus of voices insistenting that data is a form of property.

PROBLEM #3 is that there are better legal frameworks than property law for protecting personal data. In Do we really want to “sell” ourselves? The risks of a property law paradigm for personal data ownership, Elizabeth Renieris and Dazza Greenwood write,

Who owns your data? It’s a popular question of late in the identity community, particularly in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, numerous high-profile Equifax-style data breaches, and the GDPR coming into full force and effect. In our view, it’s not only the wrong question to be asking but it’s flat out dangerous when it frames the entire conversation. While ownership implies a property law model of our data, we argue that the legal framework for our identity-related data must also consider constitutional or human rights laws rather than mere property law rules

Under common law, ownership in property is a bundle of five rights — the rights of possession, control, exclusion, enjoyment, and disposition. These rights can be separated and reassembled according to myriad permutations and exercised by one or more parties at the same time. Legal ownership or “title” of real property (akin to immovable property under civil law) requires evidence in the form of a deed. Similarly, legal ownership of personal property (i.e. movable property under civil law) in the form of commercial goods requires a bill of lading, receipt, or other document of title. This means that proving ownership or exerting these property rights requires backing from the state or sovereign, or other third party. In other words, property rights emanate from an external source and, in this way, can be said to be extrinsic rights. Moreover, property rights are alienable in the sense that they can be sold or transferred to another party.

Human rights — in stark contrast to property rights — are universal, indivisible, and inalienable. They attach to each of us individually as humans, cannot be divided into sticks in a bundle, and cannot be surrendered, transferred, or sold. Rather, human rights emanate from an internal source and require no evidence of their existence. In this way, they can be said to be intrinsic rights that are self-evident. While they may be codified or legally recognized by external sources when protected through constitutional or international laws, they exist independent of such legal documents. The property law paradigm for data ownership loses sight of these intrinsic rights that may attach to our data. Just because something is property-like, does not mean that it is — or that it should be — subject to property law.

In the physical realm, it is long settled that people and organs are not treated like property. Moreover, rights to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, to associate and peaceably assemble with others, and the rights to practice religion and free speech are not property rights — rather, they are constitutional rights under U.S. law. Just as constitutional and international human rights laws protect our personhood, they also protect things that are property-like or exhibit property-like characteristics. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides “the right of the people to be secure in their persons” but also their “houses, papers, and effects.” Similarly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights protect the individual’s right to privacy and family life, but also her “home and correspondence”…

Obviously some personal data may exist in property-form just as letters and diaries in paper form may be purchased and sold in commerce. The key point is that sometimes these items are also defined as papers and effects and therefore subject to Fourth Amendment and other legal frameworks. In other words, there are some uses of (and interests in) our data that transform it from an interest in property to an interest in our personal privacy — that take it from the realm of property law to constitutional or human rights law. Location data, biological, social, communications and other behavioral data are examples of data that blend into personal identity itself and cross this threshold. Such data is highly revealing and the big-data, automated systems that collect, track and analyze this data make the need to establish proportional protections and safeguards even more important and more urgent. It is critical that we apply the correct legal framework.

PROBLEM #4 is that all of us as human beings are able to produce forms of value that far exceed that of our raw personal data. Specifically, treating data as if it were a rivalrous and excludable commodity—such as corn, oil or fruit—not only takes Jefferson’s “thinking power” off the table, but misdirects attention, investment and development work away from supporting the human outputs that are fully combustible, and might be expansible over all space, without lessening density. Ideas can do that. Oil can’t, combustible or not.

Put another way, why would you want to make almost nothing (the likely price) from selling personal data on a commodity basis when you can make a lot more by selling your work where markets for work exist, and where rights are fully understood and protected within existing legal frameworks?

What makes us fully powerful as human beings is our ability to generate and share ideas and other goods that are expansible over all space, and not just to slough off data like so much dandruff. Or to be valued only for the labors we contribute as parts of industrial machines.

Important note: I’m not knocking labor here. Most of us have to work for wages, either as parts of industrial machines, or as independent actors. There is full honor in that. Yet our nature as distinctive and valuable human beings is to be more and other than a source of labor alone, and there are ways to make money from that fact too.

Many years ago JP Rangaswami (@jobsworth) and I made a distinction between making money with something and because of something.

Example: I don’t make money with this blog. But I do make money because of it—and probably a lot more money than I would if this blog carried advertising or if I did it for a wage. JP and I called this way of making money a because effect. The entire Internet, the World Wide Web and the totality of free and open source code all have vast because effects in money made with products and services that depend on those graces. Each are rising free tides that lift all commercial boats. Non-commercial ones too.

Which gets us to the idea behind declaring personal data as personal property, and creating marketplaces where people can sell their data.

The idea goes like this: there is a $trillion or more in business activity that trades or relies on personal data in many ways. Individual sources of that data should be able to get in on the action.

Alas, most of that $trillion is in what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism: a giant snake-ball of B2B activity wherein there is zero interest in buying what can be exploited for free.

Worse, surveillance capitalism’s business is making guesses about you, so it can sell you shit. On a per-message basis, this works about 0% of the time, even though massive amounts of money flow through that B2B snakeball (visualized as abstract rectangles here and here). Many reasons for that. Here are a few:

  1. Most of the time, such as right here and now, you’re not buying a damn thing, and not in a mood to be bothered by someone telling you what to buy.
  2. Companies paying other companies to push shit at you do not have your interests at heart—not even if their messages to you are, as they like to put it, “relevant” or “interest based.” (Which they almost always are not.)
  3. The entrails of surveillance capitalism are fully infected with fraud and malware.
  4. Surveillance capitalism is also quite satisfied to soak up to 97% of an advertising spend before an ad’s publisher gets its 3% for pushing an ad at you.

Trying to get in on that business is an awful proposition.

Yes, I know it isn’t just surveillance capitalists who hunger for personal data. The health care business, for example, can benefit enormously from it, and is less of a snakeball, on the whole. But what will it pay you? And why should it pay you?

Won’t large quantities of anonymized personal data from iOS and Android devices, handed over freely, be more valuable to medicine and pharma than the few bits of data individuals might sell? (Apple has already ventured in that direction, very carefully, also while not paying for any personal data.)

And isn’t there something kinda suspect about personal data for sale? Such as motivating the unscrupulous to alter some of their data so it’s worth more?

What fully matters for people in the digital world is agency, not data. Agency is the power to act with full effect in the world. It’s what you have when you put your pants on, when you walk, or drive, or tell somebody something useful while they listen respectfully. It’s what you get when you make a deal with an equal.

It’s not what any of us get when we’re just “users” on a platform. Or when we click “agree” to one-sided terms the other party can change and we can’t. Both of those are norms in Web 2.0 and desperately need to be killed.

But it’s still early. Web 2.0 is an archaic stage in the formation of the digital world. Surveillance capitalism has also been a bubble ready to pop for years. The matter is when, not if. The whole thing is too absurd, corrupt, complex and annoying to keep living forever.

So let’s give people ways to increase their agency, at scale, in the digital world. There’s no scale in selling one’s personal data. But there’s plenty in putting better human powers to work.

If we’re going to obsess over personal data, let’s look instead toward ways to regulate or control over how our personal data might be used by others. There are lots of developers at work on this already. Here’s one list at ProjectVRM.

Bonus links:

 

 

 

 

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