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I posted this essay in my own pre-blog, Reality 2.0, on December 1, 1995. I think maybe now, in this long moment after we’ve hit a pause button on our future, we can start working on making good the unfulfilled promises that first gleamed in our future a quarter century ago.



Reality 2.0

The import of the Internet is so obvious and extreme that it actually defies valuation: witness the stock market, which values Netscape so far above that company’s real assets and earnings that its P/E ratio verges on the infinite.

Whatever we’re driving toward, it is very different from anchoring certainties that have grounded us for generations, if not for the duration of our species. It seems we are on the cusp of a new and radically different reality. Let’s call it Reality 2.0.

The label has a millenial quality, and a technical one as well. If Reality 2.0 is Reality 2.000, this month we’re in Reality 1.995.12.

With only a few revisions left before Reality 2.0 arrives, we’re in a good position to start seeing what awaits. Here are just a few of the things this writer is starting to see…

  1. As more customers come into direct contact with suppliers, markets for suppliers will change from target populations to conversations.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  5. Shipping services of all kinds will bloom. So will fulfillment services. So will ticket and entertainment sales services.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. National borders will change from barricades and toll booths into speed bumps and welcome mats.
  9. 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.
  10. Big Business will become as anachronistic as Big Government, because institutional mass will lose leverage without losing inertia.Domination will fail where partnering succeeds, simply because partners with positive sums will combine to outproduce winners and losers with zero sums.
  11. Right will make might.
  12. And might will be mighty different.


The Web is the board for a new game Phil Salin called “Polyopoly.” As Phil described it, Polyopoly is the opposite of Monopoly. The idea is not to win a fight over scarce real estate, but to create a farmer’s market for the boundless fruits of the human mind.

It’s too bad Phil didn’t live to see the web become what he (before anyone, I believe) hoped to create with AMIX: “the first efficient marketplace for information.” The result of such a marketplace, Phil said, would be polyopoly.

In Monopoly, what mattered were the three Ls of real estate: “location, location and location.”

On the web, location means almost squat.

What matters on the web are the three Cs: contentconnections and convenience. These are what make your home page a door the world beats a path to when it looks for the better mouse trap that only you sell. They give your webfront estate its real value.

If commercial interests have their way with the Web, we can also add a fourth C: cost. But how high can costs go in a polyopolistic economy? Not very. Because polyopoly creates…

An economy of abundance

The goods of Polyopoly and Monopoly are as different as love and lug nuts. Information is made by minds, not factories; and it tends to make itself abundant, not scarce. Moreover, scarce information tends to be worthless information.

Information may be bankable, but traditional banking, which secures and contains scarce commodities (or their numerical representations) does not respect the nature of information.

Because information abhors scarcity. It loves to reproduce, to travel, to multiply. Its natural habitats are wires and airwaves and disks and CDs and forums and books and magazines and web pages and hot links and chats over cappuccinos at Starbucks. This nature lends itself to polyopoly.

Polyopoly’s rules are hard to figure because the economy we are building with it is still new, and our vocabulary for describing it is sparse.

This is why we march into the Information Age hobbled by industrial metaphors. The “information highway” is one example. Here we use the language of freight forwarding to describe the movement of music, love, gossip, jokes, ideas and other communicable forms of knowledge that grow and change as they move from mind to mind.

We can at least say that knowledge, even in its communicable forms, is not reducible to data. Nor is the stuff we call “intellectual property.” A song and a bank account do not propagate the same ways. But we are inclined to say they do (and should), because we describe both with the same industrial terms.

All of which is why there is no more important work in this new economy than coining the new terms we use to describe it.

The Age of Enlightenment finally arrives

The best place to start looking for help is at the dawn of the Industrial Age. Because this was when the Age of Reason began. Nobody knew more about the polyopoly game — or played it — better than those champions of reason from whose thinking our modern republics are derived: Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

As Jon Katz says in “The Age of Paine” (Wired, May 1995 ), Thomas Paine was the the “moral father of the Internet.” Paine said “my country is the world,” and sought as little compensation as possible for his work, because he wanted it to be inexpensive and widely read. Paine’s thinking still shapes the politics of the U.S., England and France, all of which he called home.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the first rule of Polyopoly: “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.”

He also left a live bomb for modern intellectual property law: “Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.” The best look at the burning fuse is John Perry Barlow’s excellent essay “The Economy of Ideas,” in the March 1994 issue of Wired. (I see that Jon Katz repeats it in his paean to Paine. Hey, if someone puts it to song, who gets the rights?)

If Paine was the moral father of the Internet, Ben Franklin’s paternity is apparent in Silicon Valley. Today he’d fit right in, inventing hot products, surfing the Web and spreading his wit and wisdom like a Johnny Cyberseed. Hell, he even has the right haircut.

Franklin left school at 10 and was barely 15 when he ran his brother’s newspaper, writing most of its content and getting quoted all over Boston. He was a self-taught scientist and inventor while still working as a writer and publisher. He also found time to discover electricity, create the world’s first postal service, invent a heap of handy products and serve as a politician and diplomat.

Franklin’s biggest obsession was time. He scheduled and planned constantly. He even wrote his famous epitaph when he was 22, six decades before he died. “The work shall not be lost,” it reads, “for it will (as he believed) appear once more in a new and more elegant edition, revised and edited by the author.”

One feels the ghost of Franklin today, editing the web.

Time to subtract the garbage

Combine Jefferson and Franklin and you get the two magnetic poles that tug at every polyopoly player: information that only gets more abundant, and time that only gets more scarce.

As Alain Couder of Groupe Bull puts it, “we treat time as a constant in all these formulas — revolutions per minute, instructions per second — yet we experience time as something that constantly decreases.”

After all, we’re born with an unknown sum of time, and we need to spend it all before we die. The notion of “saving” it is absurd. Time can only be spent.

So: to play Polyopoly well, we need to waste as little time as possible. This is not easy in a world where the sum of information verges on the infinite.

Which is why I think Esther Dyson might be our best polyopoly player.

“There’s too much noise out there anyway,” she says in ‘Esther Dyson on DaveNet‘ (12/1/94). “The new wave is not value added, it’s garbage-subtracted.”

Here’s a measure of how much garbage she subtracts from her own life: her apartment doesn’t even have a phone.

Can she play this game, or what?

So what’s left?

I wouldn’t bother to ask Esther if she watches television, or listens to the radio. I wouldn’t ask my wife, either. To her, television is exactly what Fred Allen called it forty years ago: “chewing gum for the eyes.” Ours heats up only for natural disasters and San Jose Sharks games.

Dean Landsman, a sharp media observer from the broadcast industry, tells me that John Gresham books are cutting into time that readers would otherwise spend watching television. And that’s just the beginning of a tide that will swell as every medium’s clients weigh more carefully what they do with their time.

Which is why it won’t be long before those clients wad up their television time and stick it under their computer. “Media will eat media,” Dean says.

The computer is looking a lot hungrier than the rest of the devices out there. Next to connected computing, television is AM radio.

Fasten your seat belts.

Web of the free, home of the Huns

Think of the Industrial world — the world of Big Business and Big Government — as a modern Roman Empire.

Now think of Bill Gates as Attilla the Hun.

Because that’s exactly how Bill looks to the Romans who still see the web, and everything else in the world, as a monopoly board. No wonder Bill doesn’t have a senator in his pocket (as Mark Stahlman told us in ‘Off to the Slaughter House,’ (DaveNet, 3/14/94).

Sadly for the the Romans, their empire is inhabited almost entirely by Huns, all working away on their PCs. Most of those Huns don’t have a problem with Bill. After all, Bill does a fine job of empowering his people, and they keep electing him with their checkbooks, credit cards and purchase orders.

Which is why, when they go forth to tame the web, these tough-talking Captains of Industry and Leaders of Government look like animated mannequins in Armani Suits: clothes with no emperor. Their content is emulation. They drone about serving customers and building architectures and setting standards and being open and competing on level playing fields. But their game is still control, no matter what else they call it.

Bill may be our emperor, but ruling Huns is not the same as ruling Romans. You have to be naked as a fetus and nearly as innocent. Because polyopoly does not reward the dark tricks that used to work for industry, government and organized crime. Those tricks worked in a world where darkness had leverage, where you could fool some of the people some of the time, and that was enough.

But polyopoly is a positive-sum game. Its goods are not produced by huge industries that control the world, but by smart industries that enable the world’s inhabitants. Like the PC business that thrives on it, information grows up from individuals, not down from institutions. Its economy thrives on abundance rather than scarcity. Success goes to enablers, not controllers. And you don’t enable people by fooling them. Or by manipulating them. Or by muscling them.

In fact, you don’t even play to win. As Craig Burton of The Burton Group puts it, “the goal isn’t win/win, it’s play/play.”

This is why Bill does not “control” his Huns the way IBM controlled its Romans. Microsoft plays by winning support, where IBM won by dominating the play. Just because Microsoft now holds a controlling position does not mean that a controlling mentality got them there. What I’ve seen from IBM and Apple looks far more Monopoly-minded and controlling than anything I’ve seen from Microsoft.

Does this mean that Bill’s manners aren’t a bit Roman at times? No. Just that the support Microsoft enjoys is a lot more voluntary on the part of its customers, users and partners. It also means that Microsoft has succeeded by playing Polyopoly extremely well. When it tries to play Monopoly instead, the Huns don’t like it. Bill doesn’t need the Feds to tell him when that happens. The Huns tell him soon enough.

market is a conversation

No matter how Roman Bill’s fantasies might become, he knows his position is hardly more substantial than a conversation. In fact, it IS a conversation.

I would bet that Microsoft is engaged in more conversations, more of the time, with more customers and partners, than any other company in the world. Like or hate their work, the company connects. I submit that this, as much as anything else, accounts for its success.

In the Industrial Age, a market was a target population. Goods rolled down a “value chain” that worked like a conveyor belt. Raw materials rolled into one end and finished products rolled out the other. Customers bought the product or didn’t, and customer feedback was limited mostly to the money it spent.

To encourage customer spending, “messages” were “targeted” at populations, through advertising, PR and other activities. The main purpose of these one-way communications was to stimulate sales. That model is obsolete. What works best to day is what Normann & Ramirez (Harvard Business Review, June/July 1993) call a “value constellation” of relationships that include customers, partners, suppliers, resellers, consultants, contractors and all kinds of people.

The Web is the star field within which constellations of companies, products and markets gather themselves. And what binds them together, in each case, are conversations.

How it all adds up

What we’re creating here is a new economy — an information economy.

Behind the marble columns of big business and big government, this new economy stands in the lobby like a big black slab. The primates who work behind those columns don’t know what this thing is, but they do know it’s important and good to own. The problem is, they can’t own it. Nobody can. Because it defies the core value in all economies based on physical goods: scarcity.

Scarcity ruled the stone hearts and metal souls of every zero-sum value system that ever worked — usually by producing equal quantities of gold and gore. And for dozens of millennia, we suffered with it. If Tribe A crushed Tribe B, it was too bad for Tribe B. Victors got the spoils.

This win/lose model has been in decline for some time. Victors who used to get spoils now just get responsibilities. Cooperation and partnership are now more productive than competition and domination. Why bomb your enemy when you can get him on the phone and do business with him? Why take sides when the members of “us” and “them” constantly change?

The hard evidence is starting to come in. A recent Wharton Impact report said, “Firms which specified their objectives as ‘beating our competitors’ or ‘gaining market share’ earned substantially lower profits over the period.” We’re reading stories about women-owned businesses doing better, on the whole, because women are better at communicating and less inclined to waste energy by playing sports and war games in their marketplaces.

From the customer’s perspective, what we call “competition” is really a form of cooperation that produces abundant choices. Markets are created by addition and multiplication, not just by subtraction and division.

In my old Mac IIci, I can see chips and components from at least 11 different companies and 8 different countries. Is this evidence of war among Apple’s suppliers? Do component vendors succeed by killing each other and limiting choices for their customers? Did Apple’s engineers say, “Gee, let’s help Hitachi kill Philips on this one?” Were they cheering for one “side” or another? The answer should be obvious.

But it isn’t, for two reasons. One is that the “Dominator Model,” as anthropologist (and holocaust survivor) Riane Eisler calls it, has been around for 20,000 years, and until recently has reliably produced spoils for victors. The other is that conflict always makes great copy. To see how seductive conflict-based thinking is, try to find a hot business story that isn’t filled with sports and war metaphors. It isn’t easy.

Bound by the language of conflict, most of us still believe that free enterprise runs on competition between “sides” driven by urges to dominate, and that the interests of those “sides” are naturally opposed.

To get to the truth here, just ask this: which has produced more — the U.S. vs. Japan, or the U.S. + Japan? One produced World War II and a lot of bad news. The other produced countless marvels — from cars to consumer electronics — on which the whole world depends.

Now ask this: which has produced more — Apple vs. Microsoft or Apple + Microsoft? One profited nobody but the lawyers, and the other gave us personal computing as we know it today.

The Plus Paradigm

What brings us to Reality 2.0 is the Plus Paradigm.

The Plus Paradigm says that our world is a positive construction, and that the best games produce positive sums for everybody. It recognizes the power of information and the value of abundance. (Think about it: the best information may have the highest power to abound, and its value may vary as the inverse of its scarcity.)

Over the last several years, mostly through discussions with client companies that are struggling with changes that invalidate long-held assumptions, I have built table of old (Reality 1.0) vs. new (Reality 2.0) paradigms. The difference between these two realities, one client remarked, is that the paradigm on the right is starting to work better than the paradigm on the left.


Paradigm Reality 1.0 Reality 2.0
Means to ends Domination Partnership
Cause of progress Competition Collaboration
Center of interest Personal Social
Concept of systems Closed Open
Dynamic Win/Lose Play/Play
Roles Victor/Victim Partner/Ally
Primary goods Capital Information
Source of leverage Monopoly Polyopoly
Organization Hierarchy Flexiarchy
Roles Victor/Victim Server/Client
Scope of self-interest Self/Nation Self/World
Source of power Might Right
Source of value Scarcity Abundance
Stage of growth Child (selfish) Adult (social)
Reference valuables Metal, Money Life, Time
Purpose of boundaries Protection Limitation

Changes across the paradigms show up as positive “reality shifts.” The shift is from OR logic to AND logic, from Vs. to +:


Reality 1.0 Reality 2.0
man vs nature man + nature
Labor vs management Labor + management
Public vs private Public + private
Men vs women Men + women
Us vs them Us + them
Majority vs minority Majority + minority
Party vs party Party + party
Urban vs rural Urban + rural
Black vs white Black + white
Business vs govt. Business + govt.

The Plus Paradigm comprehends the world as a positive construction, and sees that the best games produce positive sums for everybody. It recognizes the power of information and the value of abundance. (Think about it: the best information may have the highest power to abound, and its value may vary as the inverse of its scarcity.)

For more about this whole way of thinking, see Bernie DeKoven’s ideas about “the ME/WE” at his “virtual playground.”]

This may sound sappy, but information works like love: when you give it away, you still get to keep it. And when you give it back, it grows.

Which has always been the case. But in Reality 2.0, it should become a lot more obvious.

Journalism’s biggest problem (as I’ve said before) is what it’s best at: telling stories. That’s what Thomas B. Edsall (of Columbia and The New York Times) does in Trump’s Digital Advantage Is Freaking Out Democratic Strategists, published in today’s New York Times. He tells a story. Or, in the favored parlance of our time, a narrative, about what he sees Republicans’ superior use of modern methods for persuading voters:

Experts in the explosively growing field of political digital technologies have developed an innovative terminology to describe what they do — a lexicon that is virtually incomprehensible to ordinary voters. This language provides an inkling of the extraordinarily arcane universe politics has entered:

geofencingmass personalizationdark patternsidentity resolution technologiesdynamic prospectinggeotargeting strategieslocation analyticsgeo-behavioural segmentpolitical data cloudautomatic content recognitiondynamic creative optimization.

Geofencing and other emerging digital technologies derive from microtargeting marketing initiatives that use consumer and other demographic data to identify the interests of specific voters or very small groups of like-minded individuals to influence their thoughts or actions.

In fact the “arcane universe” he’s talking about is the direct marketing playbook, which was born offline as the junk mail business. In that business, tracking individuals and bothering them personally is a fine and fully rationalized practice. And let’s face it: political campaigning has always wanted to get personal. It’s why we have mass mailings, mass callings, mass textings and the rest of it—all to personal addresses, numbers and faces.

Coincidence: I just got this:

There is nothing new here other than (at the moment) the Trump team doing it better than any Democrat. (Except maybe Bernie.) Obama’s team was better at it in ’08 and ’12. Trump’s was better at it in ’16 and is better again in ’20.*

However, debating which candidates do the best marketing misdirects our attention away from the destruction of personal privacy by constant tracking of our asses online—including tracking of asses by politicians. This, I submit, is a bigger and badder issue than which politicians do the best direct marketing. It may even be bigger than who gets elected to what in November.

As issues go, personal privacy is soul-deep. Who gets elected, and how, are not.

As I put it here,

Surveillance of people is now the norm for nearly every website and app that harvests personal data for use by machines. Privacy, as we’ve understood it in the physical world since the invention of the loincloth and the door latch, doesn’t yet exist. Instead, all we have are the “privacy policies” of corporate entities participating in the data extraction marketplace, plus terms and conditions they compel us to sign, either of which they can change on a whim. Most of the time our only choice is to deny ourselves the convenience of these companies’ services or live our lives offline.

Worse is that these are proffered on the Taylorist model, meaning mass-produced.

There is a natural temptation to want to fix this with policy. This is a mistake for two reasons:

  1. Policy-makers are themselves part of the problem. Hell, most of their election campaigns are built on direct marketing. And law enforcement (which carries out certain forms of policy) has always regarded personal privacy as a problem to overcome rather than a solution to anything. Example.
  2. Policy-makers often screw things up. Exhibit A: the EU’s GDPR, which has done more to clutter the Web with insincere and misleading cookie notices than it has to advance personal privacy tech online. (I’ve written about this a lot. Here’s one sample.)

We need tech of our own. Terms and policies of our own. In the physical world, we have privacy tech in the forms of clothing, shelter, doors, locks and window shades. We have policies in the form of manners, courtesies, and respect for privacy signals we send to each other. We lack all of that online. Until we invent it, the most we’ll do to achieve real privacy online is talk about it, and inveigh for politicians to solve it for us. Which they won’t.

If you’re interested in solving personal privacy at the personal level, take a look at Customer Commons. If you want to join our efforts there, talk to me.

*The Trump campaign also has the enormous benefit of an already-chosen Republican ticket. The Democrats have a mess of candidates and a split in the party between young and old, socialists and moderates, and no candidate as interesting as is Trump. (Also, I’m not Joyce.)

At this point, it’s no contest. Trump is the biggest character in the biggest story of our time. (I explain this in Where Journalism Fails.) And he’s on a glide path to winning in November, just as I said he was in 2016.

Here’s the popover that greets visitors on arrival at Rolling Stone‘s website:

Our Privacy Policy has been revised as of January 1, 2020. This policy outlines how we use your information. By using our site and products, you are agreeing to the policy.

That policy is supplied by Rolling Stone’s parent (PMC) and weighs more than 10,000 words. In it the word “advertising” appears 68 times. Adjectives modifying it include “targeted,” “personalized,” “tailored,” “cookie-based,” “behavioral” and “interest-based.” All of that is made possible by, among other things—

Information we collect automatically:

Device information and identifiers such as IP address; browser type and language; operating system; platform type; device type; software and hardware attributes; and unique device, advertising, and app identifiers

Internet network and device activity data such as information about files you download, domain names, landing pages, browsing activity, content or ads viewed and clicked, dates and times of access, pages viewed, forms you complete or partially complete, search terms, uploads or downloads, the URL that referred you to our Services, the web sites you visit after this web site; if you share our content to social media platforms; and other web usage activity and data logged by our web servers, whether you open an email and your interaction with email content, access times, error logs, and other similar information. See “Cookies and Other Tracking Technologies” below for more information about how we collect and use this information.

Geolocation information such as city, state and ZIP code associated with your IP address or derived through Wi-Fi triangulation; and precise geolocation information from GPS-based functionality on your mobile devices, with your permission in accordance with your mobile device settings.

The “How We Use the Information We Collect” section says they will—

Personalize your experience to Provide the Services, for example to:

  • Customize certain features of the Services,
  • Deliver relevant content and to provide you with an enhanced experience based on your activities and interests
  • Send you personalized newsletters, surveys, and information about products, services and promotions offered by us, our partners, and other organizations with which we work
  • Customize the advertising on the Services based on your activities and interests
  • Create and update inferences about you and audience segments that can be used for targeted advertising and marketing on the Services, third party services and platforms, and mobile apps
  • Create profiles about you, including adding and combining information we obtain from third parties, which may be used for analytics, marketing, and advertising
  • Conduct cross-device tracking by using information such as IP addresses and unique mobile device identifiers to identify the same unique users across multiple browsers or devices (such as smartphones or tablets, in order to save your preferences across devices and analyze usage of the Service.
  • using inferences about your preferences and interests for any and all of the above purposes

For a look at what Rolling Stone, PMC and their third parties are up to, Privacy Badger’s browser extension “found 73 potential trackers on www.rollingstone.com:


This kind of shit is why we have the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and California’s CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act). (No, it’s not just because Google and Facebook.) If publishers and the adtech industry (those third parties) hadn’t turned the commercial Web into a target-rich environment for suckage by data vampires, we’d never have had either law. (In fact, both laws are still new: the GDPR went into effect in May 2018 and the CCPA a few days ago.)

I’m in California, where the CCPA gives me the right to shake down the vampiretariat for all the information about me they’re harvesting, sharing, selling or giving away to or through those third parties.* But apparently Rolling Stone and PMC don’t care about that.

Others do, and I’ll visit some of those in later posts. Meanwhile I’ll let Rolling Stone and PMC stand as examples of bad acting by publishers that remains rampant, unstopped and almost entirely unpunished, even under these new laws.

I also suggest following and getting involved with the fight against the plague of data vampirism in the publishing world. These will help:

  1. Reading Don Marti’s blog, where he shares expert analysis and advice on the CCPA and related matters. Also People vs. Adtech, a compilation of my own writings on the topic, going back to 2008.
  2. Following what the browser makers are doing with tracking protection (alas, differently†). Shortcuts: Brave, Google’s Chrome, Ghostery’s Cliqz, Microsoft’s Edge, Epic, Mozilla’s Firefox.
  3. Following or joining communities working to introduce safe forms of nourishment for publishers and better habits for advertisers and their agencies. Those include Customer CommonsMe2B AllianceMyData Global and ProjectVRM.


*The bill (AB 375), begins,

The California Constitution grants a right of privacy. Existing law provides for the confidentiality of personal information in various contexts and requires a business or person that suffers a breach of security of computerized data that includes personal information, as defined, to disclose that breach, as specified.

This bill would enact the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018. Beginning January 1, 2020, the bill would grant a consumer a right to request a business to disclose the categories and specific pieces of personal information that it collects about the consumer, the categories of sources from which that information is collected, the business purposes for collecting or selling the information, and the categories of 3rd parties with which the information is shared. The bill would require a business to make disclosures about the information and the purposes for which it is used. The bill would grant a consumer the right to request deletion of personal information and would require the business to delete upon receipt of a verified request, as specified. The bill would grant a consumer a right to request that a business that sells the consumer’s personal information, or discloses it for a business purpose, disclose the categories of information that it collects and categories of information and the identity of 3rd parties to which the information was sold or disclosed…

Don Marti has a draft letter one might submit to the brokers and advertisers who use all that personal data. (He also tweets a caution here.)

†This will be the subject of my next post.

The Los Angeles in your head is a Neutra house. You’ve seen many of them in movies, and some of them in many movies. Some of those are now gone, alas, as is the architect and preservationist who also designed, or helped design, many of the buildings that bear his surname. Dion Neutra died last week, at 93 years of work more than of age. Here is a Google search for his obituary, which brings up a great many entries.

Dion was a good man and a good friend. Here he is in our Santa Barbara back yard a few years ago:

If you read Dion’s obituaries (of which the longest and best is the LA Times’), you’ll learn much about his life, work and legacy. But I know some things that don’t quite make it through those channels, so I’ll fill in a couple of those details.

One is that Dion was a peripatetic correspondent, mostly by email, especially via his White Light newsletter, which he sent out on a schedule that rounded to always. “White Light” meant healing energy, which was directed by Dion and his readers toward friends who might need some. There were many other topics in their midst (he could hold forth at great length on you-name-it), but health was perhaps the biggest one. Over the last few months, Dion’s letter increasingly reported on his own decline (which seemed radically at odds with his high lifelong energy level, which was invested in a great deal of golf, among other physical activities), but always also about what others were up to. The last words of his last letter, on October 24, were “Lots of love to everybody. Bye!”

The other is that Dion was eager to jump on the Internet, starting in the last millennium. I know this because I was the guy he asked for help putting up his first website. Which I did, at Neutra.org: a domain name I also helped him acquire. Here is the first capture of it, by the Internet Archive, 21 years and 1 day ago. I remember arguing with Dion about making the whole site a constant appeal to save one Neutra building or another, but that turned out to be his main work, from that point onward. He failed in some efforts, but succeeded in others. Thanks to that work, Neutra architecture and all it stands for live on.

Lots of love to you and what you’ve done for us all, old friend.

The Cluetrain Manifesto went online for the world on March 26, 1999. “People of Earth,” it began. Nothing modest about it.

Chris Locke and David Weinberger both had newsletters with real subscriber bases (a href=”http://www.rageboy.com/”>Entropy Gradient Reversals and JOHO, respectively). I had a good-size list of email correspondents, and so did Rick Levine. So we put the word out, same day.

And it spread. Like: whoaTom Petzinger’s Cluetrain column The Wall Street Journal called the Manifesto “pretentious, strident and absolutely brilliant,” which threw gas on the fire. Instantly my email traffic jumped from dozens to hundreds a day, where it has remained ever since.

Interesting fact: the only reason I know Tom said that is because it was mentioned in a 2000 interview for Linux Journal that was too long to run at the time and remained buried like a time capsule until 2014, when it was exhumed and turned into this seven-part Cluetrain fifteenth anniversary piece. If you want to know lotsa shit about Cluetrain, including more of the origin story than I just told, that’s where to look.

There’s also deeper stuff in it. An example:

Part 2: The Red Pill Story

Linux Journal: What is “Business as Usual” and what’s killing it?

Doc Searls: Business as Usual is the Dilbert cartoon where too much of the world continues to work.

Linux Journal: The PHBs we love to hate.

Doc Searls: Yeah, but it’s more than that. It’s what gives all of us pointy hair.

Linux Journal: Which is?

Doc Searls: There’s a blue pill answer and a red one. The blue pill answer is that companies are clueless and need to start getting the clues from markets. The red pill answer is much deeper and more fundamental. I like The Matrix analogy because the movie’s premise is that reality is a screen saver for something much worse. In Cluetrain we’re saying that what we think about business and markets is actually driven by something much more deep and sinister than the absence of “best practices” or other management disciplines that CEOs neglect to apply. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the Matrix in the movie is a metaphor for marketing. It’s the pleasing but false reality where we live only to serve as batteries for business as usual.

Linux Journal: And that’s the red pill answer?

Doc Searls: That’s part of the answer. The deeper part is about the programming. Business as Usual depends on all of us agreeing to understand business in terms that make us slaves. We’re not conscious of this programming because it’s unconscious. The Industrial Age hasn’t ended, because it lives in our heads. Worse, a repurposed version of it drives much of what we call “the new economy.” We’re still in blue pill territory when we talk about markets as distant, abstract things. At the bottom of the rabbit hole is what markets really are — what we really are. When we go there we see what we forgot when Industry came along and substituted abstractions for reality.

Linux Journal: What are you saying isn’t real?

Doc Searls: Most of what we call “markets” are pure abstractions. We see markets as targets for advertising messages, as creatures like bulls and bears, as battlefields and sports arenas where companies fight like gladiators for territoriesspaces and shares of categories and slices of pies. We give the “market” label to geographies like New York and China, and to demographics like “Men 25-54.” We also give it to characterizations like “upscale suburban Volvo drivers.” Each of these abstractions actually expresses a metaphor that does our thinking and talking for us.

Linux Journal: Give us an example.

Doc Searls: The word “content.” It used to be an catch-all noun for anything that occupied a package. Now we apply it to anything you can distribute over the Net. Why is that? What happened here? Why did “content” suddenly get so big? As a writer, I used to write stories. Back when I was in radio, we ran programs. Bands used to make records. Now all those things are “content,” and every artist is a “content provider.” Like our craft is nothing more than a manufacturing job, and our goods are nothing more than cargo you strap to a skid and load onto trucks. Where did that word come from? Why did we choose it instead of something else, like “goods?”

Linux Journal: So, why?

Doc Searls: Because we conceive business in terms of shipping, even though we’re hardly aware of it. In linguistic terms, our business vocabulary is induced by the conceptual metaphor business is shipping. This has been going on for the better part of two hundred years, and it didn’t stop when the Net showed up. Suddenly here was this fabulous new medium, this shiny new shipping system for everything you can name that ever went through an old medium, plus lots of new stuff. Let’s re-conceive everything as content and carry on with Business as Usual, but with a great new way to move stuff from A to Z, including B to B, B to C and all the rest of it. Just like we did with Television, we can load our content into a channel and address it for delivery to end users through medium that serves as a distribution system or a value chain.

Linux Journal: So when you say somebody “adds value,” you’re using a shipping metaphor.

Doc Searls: Absolutely.

Linux Journal: What’s so bad about that?

Doc Searls: Nothing, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far in a world built on relationships in which shipping stuff from X to X is more a technicality than a fundamental concept. In the industrial world, especially the commercial mass media part of that world, shipping was a very appropriate conceptual metaphor. It gave us a useful vocabulary for describing a world where a goods move great distances between a few producers and millions of consumers. The problem is, when you apply that metaphor in a networked world, with its networked markets, you make the mistake of treating in-your-face customers as distant consumers. They aren’t cattle. They fish-like gullets gulping down products that fall off the end of distribution’s conveyor belt. But we still conceive them that way, or we wouldn’t talk about “aggregating” and “capturing” them. We also wouldn’t talk about “moving content” through the Net as if it were just another medium, like TV, radio and newspapers.

Linux Journal: Is the Net really that different?

Doc Searls: It’s absolutely different because it’s infinitely more than a way to convey crap from producers to consumers. It’s the connected consciousness of the market itself. It makes markets smart by giving customers unprecedented powers, the most fundamental of which is each other — not just an immense choice among suppliers. Ir makes customers extraordinarily powerful, too. If they get pissed off, they can make life hell for the vendor by creating sites like Gapsucks.orgUntied.com, and Burnallgifs.org. One customer with a grudge can bring a hallowed brand to great embarrassment.

Linux Journal: So you’re saying there’s a limit to how far you can stretch the shipping metaphor, because shipping isn’t all that’s happening in the post-industrial world.

Doc Searls: Right.

Linux Journal: When does it end?

Doc Searls: When it fails. When it falls out of fashion. When it comes off as rude behavior, like belching in public or smoking in an elevator. The plain truth is that “content” insults the nature of what it labels. Expressions like “B2B” and ” B2C” — labels for “business-to-business” and “business-to-consumer” — insult the nature of business itself. Ask yourself, do you do business to people or with them? “B2B” might be a useful category, but it has a way of presupposing that all that happens in a B2B business is the moving of goods from B to B. The preposition “to” was chosen for us by the shipping metaphor, which conceives business as shipping, rather than as a relationship.

Linux Journal: But what about the fact that, from the vendor’s perspective, we really do ship a lot of stuff to a lot of customers who buy stuff from us on the Web?

Doc Searls: It’s a fact. But it’s not the only fact. Nor is it the defining fact. What we need to understand — in our bones — is that the Net is not just a few-to-many system. Sure, it supports shipping. Where would Amazon be without it? But shipping is not all that happens. Suddenly the first source and the final customer are one click apart. “Consumers” aren’t a zillion plankton any more. They have names, personal Web pages and email addresses. Supply and demand can talk to each other. They can engage, just like they did for ten thousand years in real markets. That’s why it’s now good business for savvy producers to talk with their markets at every level, and with real human voices, not the robotic “thank you for calling” voice from phone mail hell.

Linux Journal: In the book you make the point that the Industrial Age is only two hundred years old, while markets have been around for thousands of years — and that the Net brings us back into the kind of world we had when markets were tents gathered at crossroads. What’s relevant about those ancient markets today? Isn’t the modern world too radically different?

Doc Searls: It’s not radically different. Two things are relevant about ancient markets. First, they never went away. The real world is full of them. Every farmer’s market reminds us of them. Second, the Net multiplies the power of all their virtues. As a result, markets themselves are much more powerful and smart than ever before. Our business-is-shipping vocabulary forces us to describe a world that excludes or discounts countless new facts of market life. As producers we assume we retain the power to create and organize demand, just as we did a decade or more ago. That just isn’t the case — at least not by traditional means.

Linux Journal: We notice that you created quite a bit of demand for the Cluetrain book.

Doc Searls: Yeah, but we didn’t do it by mass media methods. We did it by hacker’s methods. We wrote something we thought was good and put it out for review. Lots of people agreed that it was good and word spread from there. One reason they agreed was because we spoke for the masses of people who don’t want to be treated like fish in a tank any more. Not for Business. Not for Marketing.

Linux Journal: It also isn’t just producers who are stuck in the shipping metaphor.

Doc Searls: Right. Exactly. As consumers we often still feel powerless in the face of producer insults — just like we did back when all we could do was call a “customer support” 800 number and plead our case to a minimum wage worker who was paid to get rid of us. We’re in a world now that’s very much like that ancient market, that mess of stalls and tents at crossroads in the third world. In markets like those, reputation is extremely important. If the weaver’s cloth falls apart in a few days, or if he’s too big a jerk to deal with, customers spread word in the market, and the effects follow quickly. It’s the same today on the Net.

Linux Journal: What else have we forgotten about ancient markets?

Doc Searls: Mostly their importance. As a social institution, the market was far more important than the church, the government, the military, you name it. For evidence, look at your own surname. There’s a good chance it labels an ancestor’s role in his market. Hunter, Potter, Shoemaker, Mason, Miller, Smith, Tanner, Mason, Cobbler, Fisher, Weaver, Brewer… those names were earned by craft. Those crafts’ contexts were in the marketplace. Mr. Baker baked bread. Mr. Tanner tanned hide, and probably sold leather goods that he made himself. Mrs. Weaver probably wove rugs or garments on a loom she and her family built themselves. Mr. Carpenter was in the furniture or the construction business. All those craftspeople knew their customers by name. The forces that make a market — supply and demand, vendors and customers, producers and consumers — were a handshake apart.

Linux Journal: And the Industrial Revolution put an end to all that.

Doc Searls: Yes. It turned farmers and bakers into die-makers and loom operators: interchangeable parts of corporate machines. As Chris Locke puts it, Industry invented the job. In the Cluetrain book, Rick Levine talks very movingly about craft, and what it really means. Today the word suggests an avocation: a hobby. But our ancestors made their livings with their crafts, and they sold what they made in real-world markets. Rick starts his chapter, “I’m a potter’s son.” And it shows. Rick grew up identifying himself, like his father, with his work, which is programming — even though he now runs a company. Programming is his pottery, his personal craft.

Linux Journal: You call the Industrial Revolution an “interruption.”

Doc Searls: Yes. Industry had few uses for our crafts, but lots of uses for our labor. The social and psychological disruption must have been huge. Many generations have passed since our ancestors left their farms and shops and went to work in factories, mines and offices. We’ve long forgotten the demeaning and dehumanizing changes that Industry caused to whole societies when it melted us down to fuel the labor pool.

The great irony of Cluetrain is that today—

—yet things are worse. You know that, of course, but to grok how fully bleak things have become, read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and/or Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger’s Re-Engineering Humanity.

Yet I remain optimistic. Because Cluetrain was early by (it turns out) at least two decades. And mainstream media are starting to get the clues. I know that because last week I heard from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, AP and an HBO show. I normally hear from none of those (or maybe one, a time or two per year).

Something is in the water. It’s us, and the water is still the Internet.

Bonus link.

I came up with that law in the last millennium and it applied until Chevy discontinued the Cavalier in 2005. Now it should say, “You’re going to get whatever they’ve got.”

The difference is that every car rental agency in days of yore tended to get their cars from a single car maker, and now they don’t. Back then, if an agency’s relationship was with General Motors, which most of them seemed to be, the lot would have more of GM’s worst car than of any other kind of car. Now the car you rent truly is whatever. In the last year we’ve rented at least one Kia, Hyundai, Chevy, Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford and Toyota, and that’s just off the top of my head. (By far the best was a Chevy Impala. I actually loved it. So, naturally, it’s being discontinued.)

All of that, of course, applies only in the U.S. I know less about car rental verities in Europe, since I haven’t rented a car there since (let’s see…) 2011.

Anyway, when I looked up doc searls chevy cavalier to find whatever I’d written about my felicitous Fourth Law, the results included this, from my blog in 2004…

Five years later, the train pulls into Madison Avenue

ADJUSTING TO THE REALITY OF A CONSUMER-CONTROLLED MARKET, by Scott Donathon in Advertising Age. An excerpt:

Larry Light, global chief marketing officer at McDonald’s, once again publicly declared the death of the broadcast-centric ad model: “Mass marketing today is a mass mistake.” McDonald’s used to spend two-thirds of its ad budget on network prime time; that figure is now down to less than one-third.

General Motors’ Roger Adams, noting the automaker’s experimentation with less-intrusive forms of marketing, said, “The consumer wants to be in control, and we want to put them in control.” Echoed Saatchi & Saatchi chief Kevin Roberts, “The consumer now has absolute power.”

“It is not your goddamn brand,” he told marketers.

This consumer empowerment is at the heart of everything. End users are now in control of how, whether and where they consume information and entertainment. Whatever they don’t want to interact with is gone. That upends the intrusive model the advertising business has been sustained by for decades.

This is still fucked, of course. Advertising is one thing. Customer relationships are another.

“Consumer empowerment” is an oxymoron. Try telling McDonalds you want a hamburger that doesn’t taste like a horse hoof. Or try telling General Motors that nobody other than rental car agencies wants to buy a Chevy Cavalier or a Chevy Classic; or that it’s time, after 60 years of making crap fixtures and upholstery, to put an extra ten bucks (or whatever it costs) into trunk rugs that don’t seem like the company works to make them look and feel like shit. Feel that “absolute power?” Or like you’re yelling at the pyramids?

Real demand-side empowerment will come when it’s possible for any customer to have a meaningful — and truly valued — conversation with people in actual power on the supply side. And those conversations turn into relationships. And those relationships guide the company.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Meanwhile the decline of old-fashioned brand advertising on network TV (which now amounts to a smaller percentage of all TV in any case) sounds more to me like budget rationalization than meaningful change where it counts.

Thanks to Terry for the pointer.

Three things about that.

First, my original blog (which ran from 1999 to 2007) is still up, thanks to Jake Savin and Dave Winer, at http://weblog.searls.com. (Adjust your pointers. It’ll help Google and Bing forget the old address.)

Second, I’ve been told by rental car people that the big American car makers actually got tired of hurting their brands by making shitty cars and scraping them off on rental agencies. So now the agencies mostly populate their lots surplus cars that don’t make it to dealers for various reasons. They also let their cars pile up 50k miles or more before selling them off. Also, the quality of cars in general is much higher than it used to be, and the experience of operating them is much more uniform—meaning blah in nearly identical ways.

Third, I’ve changed my mind on brand advertising since I wrote that. Two reasons. One is that brand advertising sponsors the media it runs on, which is a valuable thing. The other is that brand advertising really does make a brand familiar, which is transcendently valuable to the brand itself. There is no way personalized and/or behavioral advertising can do the same. Perhaps as much as $2trillion has been spent on tracking-based digital advertising, and not one brand known to the world has been made by it.

And one more thing: since we don’t commute, and we don’t need a car most of the time, we now favor renting cars over owning them. Much simpler and much cheaper. And the cars we rent tend to be nicer than the used cars we’ve owned and mostly driven into the ground. You never know what you’re going to get, but generally they’re not bad, and not our problem if something goes wrong with one, which almost never happens.


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.


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
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:





Just before it started, the geology meeting at the Santa Barbara Central Library on Thursday looked like this from the front of the room (where I also tweeted the same pano):

Geologist Ed Keller

Our speakers were geology professor Ed Keller of UCSB and Engineering Geologist Larry Gurrola, who also works and studies with Ed. That’s Ed in the shot below.

As a geology freak, I know how easily terms like “debris flow,” “fanglomerate” and “alluvial fan” can clear a room. But this gig was SRO. That’s because around 3:15 in the morning of January 9th, debris flowed out of canyons and deposited fresh fanglomerate across the alluvial fan that comprises most of Montecito, destroying (by my count on the map below) 178 buildings, damaging more than twice that many, and killing 23 people. Two of those—a 2 year old girl and a 17 year old boy—are still interred in the fresh fanglomerate and sought by cadaver dogs.* The whole thing is beyond sad and awful.

The town was evacuated after the disaster so rescue and recovery work could proceed without interference, and infrastructure could be found and repaired: a job that required removing twenty thousand truckloads of mud and rocks. That work continues while evacuation orders are gradually lifted, allowing the town to repopulate itself to the very limited degree it can.

I talked today with a friend whose business is cleaning houses. Besides grieving the dead, some of whom were friends or customers, she reports that the cleaning work is some of the most difficult she has ever faced, even in homes that were spared the mud and rocks. Refrigerators and freezers, sitting closed and without electricity for weeks, reek of death and rot. Other customers won’t be back because their houses are gone.

Highway 101, one of just two freeways connecting Northern and Southern California, runs through town near the coast and more than two miles from the mountain front. Three debris flows converged on the highway and used it as a catch basin, filling its deep parts to the height of at least one bridge before spilling over its far side and continuing to the edge of the sea. It took two weeks of constant excavation and repair work before traffic could move again. Most exits remain closed. Coast Village Road, Montecito’s Main Street, is open for employees of stores there, but little is open for customers yet, since infrastructural graces such as water are not fully restored. (I saw the Honor Bar operating with its own water tank, and a water truck nearby.) Opening Upper Village will take longer. Some landmark institutions, such as San Ysidro Ranch and La Casa Santa Maria, will take years to restore. (From what I gather, San Ysidro Ranch, arguably the nicest hotel in the world, was nearly destroyed. Its website thank firefighters for salvation from the Thomas Fire. But nothing, I gather, could have save it from the huge debris flow wiped out nearly everything on the flanks of San Ysidro Creek. (All the top red dots along San Ysidro Creek in the map below mark lost buildings at the Ranch.)

Here is a map with final damage assessments. I’ve augmented it with labels for the canyons and creeks (with one exception: a parallel creek west of Toro Canyon Creek):

Click on the map for a closer view, or click here to view the original. On that one you can click on every dot and read details about it.

I should pause to note that Montecito is no ordinary town. Demographically, it’s Beverly Hills draped over a prettier landscape and attractive to people who would rather not live in Beverly Hills. (In fact the number of notable persons Wikipedia lists for Montecito outnumbers those it lists for Beverly Hills by a score of 77 to 71.) Culturally, it’s a village. Last Monday in The New Yorker, one of those notable villagers, T.Coraghessan Boyle, unpacked some other differences:

I moved here twenty-five years ago, attracted by the natural beauty and semirural ambience, the short walk to the beach and the Lower Village, and the enveloping views of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which rise abruptly from the coastal plain to hold the community in a stony embrace. We have no sidewalks here, if you except the business districts of the Upper and Lower Villages—if we want sidewalks, we can take the five-minute drive into Santa Barbara or, more ambitiously, fight traffic all the way down the coast to Los Angeles. But we don’t want sidewalks. We want nature, we want dirt, trees, flowers, the chaparral that did its best to green the slopes and declivities of the mountains until last month, when the biggest wildfire in California history reduced it all to ash.

Fire is a prerequisite for debris flows, our geologists explained. So is unusually heavy rain in a steep mountain watershed. There are five named canyons, each its own watershed, above Montecito, as we see on the map above. There are more to the east, above Summerland and Carpinteria, the next two towns down the coast. Those towns also took some damage, though less than Montecito.

Ed Keller put up this slide to explain conditions that trigger debris flows, and how they work:

Ed and Larry were emphatic about this: debris flows are not landslides, nor do many start that way (though one did in Rattlesnake Canyon 1100 years ago). They are also not mudslides, so we should stop calling them that. (Though we won’t.)

Debris flows require sloped soils left bare and hydrophobic—resistant to water—after a recent wildfire has burned off the chaparral that normally (as geologists say) “hairs over” the landscape. For a good look at what soil surfaces look like, and are likely to respond to rain, look at the smooth slopes on the uphill side of 101 east of La Conchita. Notice how the surface is not only a smooth brown or gray, but has a crust on it. In a way, the soil surface has turned to glass. That’s why water runs off of it so rapidly.

Wildfires are common, and chaparral is adapted to them, becoming fuel for the next fire as it regenerates and matures. But rainfalls as intense as this one are not common. In just five minutes alone, more than half an inch of rain fell in the steep and funnel-like watersheds above Montecito. This happens about once every few hundred years, or about as often as a tsunami.

It’s hard to generalize about the combination of factors required, but Ed has worked hard to do that, and this slide of his is one way of illustrating how debris flows happen eventually in places like Montecito and Santa Barbara:

From bottom to top, here’s what it says:

  1. Fires happen almost regularly, spreading most widely where chaparral has matured to become abundant fuel, as the firefighters like to call it.
  2. Flood events are more random, given the relative rarity of rain and even more rare rains of “biblical” volume. But they do happen.
  3. Stream beds in the floors of canyons accumulate rocks and boulders that roll down the gradually eroding slopes over time. The depth of these is expressed as basin instablity. Debris flows clear out the rocks and boulders when a big flood event comes right after a fire and basin becomes stable (relatively rock-free) again.
  4. The sediment yield in a flood (F) is maximum when a debris flow (DF) occurs.
  5. Debris flows tend to happen once every few hundred years. And you’re not going to get the big ones if you don’t have the canyon stream bed full of rocks and boulders.

About this set of debris flows in particular:

  1. Destruction down Oak Creek wasn’t as bad as on Montecito, San Ysidro, Buena Vista and Romero Creeks because the canyon feeding it is smaller.
  2. When debris flows hit an obstruction, such as a bridge, they seek out a new bed to flow on. This is one of the actions that creates an alluvial fan. From the map it appears something like that happened—
    1. Where the flow widened when it hit Olive Mill Road, fanning east of Olive Mill to destroy all three blocks between Olive Mill and Santa Elena Lane before taking the Olive Mill bridge across 101 and down to the Biltmore while also helping other flows fill 101 as well. (See Mac’s comment below, and his link to a top map.)
    2. In the area between Buena Vista Creek and its East Fork, which come off different watersheds
    3. Where a debris flow forked south of Mountain Drive after destroying San Ysidro Ranch, continuing down both Randall and El Bosque Roads.

For those who caught (or are about to catch) Ellen’s Facetime with Oprah visiting neighbors, that happened among the red dots at the bottom end of the upper destruction area along San Ysidro Creek, just south of East Valley Road. Oprah’s own place is in the green area beside it on the left, looking a bit like Versailles. (Credit where due, though: Oprah’s was a good and compassionate report.)

Big question: did these debris flows clear out the canyon floors? We (meaning our geologists, sedimentologists, hydrologists and other specialists) won’t know until they trek back into the canyons to see how it all looks. Meanwhile, we do have clues. For example, here are after-and-before photos of Montecito, shot from space. And here is my close-up of the latter, shot one day after the event, when everything was still bare streambeds in the mountains and fresh muck in town:

See the white lines fanning back into the mountains through the canyons (Cold Spring, San Ysidro, Romero, Toro) above Montecito? Ed explained that these appear to be the washed out beds of creeks feeding into those canyons. Here is his slide showing Cold Spring Creek before and after the event:

Looking back at Ed’s basin threshold graphic above, one might say that there isn’t much sediment left for stream beds to yield, and that those in the floors of the canyons have returned to stability, meaning there’s little debris left to flow.

But that photo was of just one spot. There are many miles of creek beds to examine back in those canyons.

Still, one might hope that Montecito has now had its required 200-year event, and a couple more centuries will pass before we have another one.

Ed and Larry caution against such conclusions, emphasizing that most of Montecito’s and Santa Barbara’s inhabited parts gain their existence, beauty or both by grace of debris flows. If your property features boulders, Ed said, a debris flow put them there, and did that not long ago in geologic time.

For an example of boulders as landscape features, here are some we quarried out of our yard more than a decade ago, when we were building a house dug into a hillside:

This is deep in the heart of Santa Barbara.

The matrix mud we now call soil here is likely a mix of Juncal and Cozy Dell shale, Ed explained. Both are poorly lithified silt and erode easily. The boulders are a mix of Matilija and Coldwater sandstone, which comprise the hardest and most vertical parts of the Santa Ynez mountains. The two are so similar that only a trained eye can tell them apart.

All four of those geological formations were established long after dinosaurs vanished. All also accumulated originally as sediments, mostly on ocean floors, probably not far from the equator.

To illustrate one chapter in the story of how those rocks and sediments got here, UCSB has a terrific animation of how the transverse (east-west) Santa Ynez Mountains came to be where they are. Here are three frames in that movie:

What it shows is how, when the Pacific Plate was grinding its way northwest about eighteen million years ago, a hunk of that plate about a hundred miles long and the shape of a bread loaf broke off. At the top end was the future Malibu hills and at the bottom end was the future Point Conception, then situated south of what’s now Tijuana. The future Santa Barbara was west of the future Newport Beach. Then, when the Malibu end of this loaf got jammed at the future Los Angeles, the bottom end of the loaf swept out, clockwise and intact. At the start it was pointing at 5 o’clock and at the end (which isn’t), it pointed at 9:00. This was, and remains, a sideshow off the main event: the continuing crash of the Pacific Plate and the North American one.

Here is an image that helps, from that same link:

Find more geology, with lots of links, in Making sense of what happened to Montecito. I put that post up on the 15th and have been updating it since then. It’s the most popular post in the history of this blog, which I started in 2007. There are also 58 comments, so far.

I’ll be adding more to this post after I visit as much as I can of Montecito (exclusion zones permitting). Meanwhile, I hope this proves useful. Again, corrections and improvements are invited.

30 January

6 April, 2020
*I was told later, by a rescue worker who was on the case, that it was possible that both victims’ bodies had washed all the way to the ocean, and thus will never be found.

In this Edhat story, Ed Keller visits a recently found prior debris flow. An excerpt:

The mud and boulders from a prehistoric debris flow, the second-to-last major flow in Montecito, have been discovered by a UCSB geologist at the Bonnymede condominiums and Hammond’s Meadow, just east of the Coral Casino.

The flow may have occurred between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago, said Ed Keller, a professor of earth science at the university. He’s calling it the “penultimate event.” It came down a channel of Montecito Creek and was likely larger on that creek than during the disaster of Jan. 9, 2018, Keller said. Of 23 people who perished on Jan. 9, 17 died along Montecito Creek.

The long interval between the two events means that the probability of another catastrophic debris flow occurring in Montecito in the next 1,000 years is very low, Keller said.

“It’s reassuring,” he said, “They’re still pretty rare events, if you consider you need a wildfire first and then an intense rainfall. But smaller debris flows could occur, and you could still get a big flash flood. If people are given a warning to evacuate, they should heed it.”

Two graphs tell some of the story.

First is how often “nonviolence” and “non-violence” appeared in books until 2008, when Google quit keeping track:

Second is search trends for “nonviolence” and “non-violence” since 2004, which is when Google started keeping track of trends:

Clearly nonviolence wasn’t a thing at all until 1918, which is when Mohandas Gandhi started bringing it up. It became a big thing again in the 1960s, thanks to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement he led during the Vietnam war.

Then, at the close of the 60s, it trailed off. Not that it ever went away, but it clearly retreated.


Here’s the part of the story that seems clearest to me, and to the late Bill Hicks:

Spake Bill, “We kill those people.”

I was only a year old when Gandhi was shot, so I don’t remember that one; but I was involved in both the civil rights and antiwar movements in North Carolina when Martin Luther King was gunned down in June 1968, and Bobby Kennedy a few days later.

I cannot overstate the senses of grief, despair and hopelessness that followed those two assassinations. (And of Malcolm X three years earlier. And again when Nixon got elected a few months later in ’68.)

Two things were clear to me at the time: that violence won, and that the civil rights and antiwar movements were set back decades by those events.

Those observations have been borne out in the half-century since. Yes, there is still peaceful resistance, as there has been at various times and ways, going back at least as far as ahimsa in the Jain, Buddhist and Hindu faiths.

But where is it now? Look for nonviolence in Google News and you’ll find some nice stuff, but nothing that looks like a movement to counterbalance the violence in the world, or the hostile prejudices that fuel it.

Racism and appetites for violent conflict today are hardly less embedded than they ever were, and are now emboldened within the echo chambers of tribalisms old and new—the latter thanks to online media, some of which seem purpose-built to gather, isolate and amplify hostilities. (Bonus link: Down the Breitbart Hole, in last Sunday’s NY Times.)

I can hear the arguments: “look at all the examples of peaceful marches” and so on. But nonviolence itself, as a virtue and a strategy, is back-burnered at best, and lacks a single exemplar or advocate on the scale of a Gandhi or a King.

Hell, maybe I’m wrong about it. If I am, tell me how. My mind is hardly made up on this.



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