Up, up and away with the De Beauvoir Balloonists

A couple of weeks back, I was out for dinner in a pizza restuarant in De Beauvoir Town in London, and saw a flyer for The Spring De Beauvoir Balloon Debate. I recongised Azeem Azhar’s name on the billing, as I already follow his blog (as you should too!), and was instantly attracted by the other speakers.

I turned up on Thursday to the debate, introduced by Pamela Dow, with the premise being that all of us in St Peter’s Crypt that night were about to fly off in a balloon to start a new civilisation. The only problem is that we only had space for one more idea, so our task for the night was to listen to the argument put forward by each speaker, and then vote for which one we wanted to take with us on the flight.

I want to share some of the points the speakers made, although I won’t claim to have covered everything, so my apologies to them where I have missed elements of their arguments. First up was Mark Chavez.

Mark Chavez :“it’s time to flip who owns the data and disrupt the Cloud”

In this digital age, companies and organisations are competing for our time and focus via our phones and connected devices, because from that focus, data flows, and that means money for whoever gets our data – the highest bidder. And even if we don’t give our time to everyone who wants it, we are always building up queues of “requests” for our time in the form of notifications, reading lists, social feeds and so on.

However, these organisations do not necessarily prioritise our time in the same way we do. Mark’s idea is for us to get more uninterrupted time – put simply we need to flip who owns our data. Why don’t we own our data in the Information Age? Why is the default that we have given it to others to derive value rather than retain that value ourselves?

Mark’s latest venture is attempting to help us achieve that by:

  1. setting up a container for people to store all their information, rather than giving it away.
  2. building a subscription service for our data. It would be up to us who gets to see and use our data, but they can only subscribe and never own it themselves.
  3. developing a two way “click through agreement” – why do other organisations set the terms for their service without me setting the rules for my own data?

The flip doesn’t happen unless we have a better economic model – like pollution, the exploitation of our data and our time can, and probably should be, considered as an externality. We’ll look back on this era with surprise we tolerated it, just like we look back on public smoking now. The new economic model Mark is proposing moves away from brands paying advertising to platforms as intermediaries to one where brands engage directly with me and compete to offer me the best deal for my personal value, be it my attention or my money.

One point that did come up is that as well as companies deriving value from our data, of course as users we derive value from the services we get in return, such as social networks through Facebook, or store cards like Clubcard. The argument being made is that we are massively undervaluing our data, and those providing the services make a significant “profit” as a result. In the new model Mark proposes, we would still derive value ourselves from the services we received in return for our data, but we would get a much more equitable deal out of it.

As an aside, in one of the questions, Mark began to explore an interesting application of blockchain to music streaming to ensure artists own their own intellectual property. I’m not sure I totally understood the details, but its another one to add to list of non-financial blockchain use cases which I seem to be reading about more and more lately.

Azeem Azhar :“Tech can make our futures better and brighter”

Technology companies are some of the biggest in the world, and are pseudo-monopolies for elements of us – Facebook is a monopoly for our friendships, Google is a monopoly for our search needs, Instagram is becoming a monopoly for sharing photographs.

It can often feel like technology is overwhelming us, but it is a necessary condition for our progress (if you define technology as more than our current silicon-based focus).

Azeem shared a quote about conditions of poverty, starvation and death during the 1868 Swedish famine, but two decades later technology (fertilisers, transportation, finance) had eliminated famine from Western Europe. Indeed, the Haber-Bosch process has been credited with keeping 3 out of 5 of us alive of us today rather than starving.

As another example, the cost of lighting has reduced 10,000 fold as a result of ubiquitous electric light, and has also given us more time to be productive if we choose to be.

However, we have to be mindful that technology is not value-agnostic. Our judgements and beliefs of what the optimal outcome of an experiment or a technological development inform where we focus our research and development efforts, and how we apply “progress”. We also need to be aware of how network effects lend themselves to monopolies ans therefore respond appropriately.

Azeem defined two stages to technological progress:

  1. An installation phase – tech is hard and complex, so few know how to use it. A consequnce of this is that huge monopolies can be created as financial investment floods in, but as we should know by now, financial investment is not often ethical!
  2. A deployment phase where tech becomes useful.

Overall, the path of technological progress and the cumulative impact means you can’t have progress without the negative externalities, so if we want to avoid more negative outcomes (e.g. Mass unemployment), we have to think whether the response is to roll back tech or find an alternative response to technological progress.

Therefore, its important that technology is not left to technologists alone. To date we have tended to allow a group of neo-liberalists in Silicon Valley to write the rules, but unless we get in there before they finish writing the rules, we will be reliant on their continued benevolence.

Julia Hobsbawm : “In the age of overload, we need to look after our social health”

Every Friday night Julia has “techno-sabbath” – no tech for 24 hours and reconnect to family and to the “real” world. This means spending time with family and friends, reading, creating, without the aid of technology.

This is in response to the problems deriving from our hyperconnected nature. It’s only 150 years since we started living on networks, when we laid telegraph cables across the Atlantic — “the death of distance”. That’s an incredibly short time in evolutionary terms, so its not surprising that we are yet to learn how to handle it in a healthy, non-dysfunctional way.

Julia reflected that all three speakers were saying that something is starting to go wrong – we are at an inflection point where there is evidence that society is not handling our rapid technological progress well. Productivity is stagnant, stress is up,and it doesn’t feel that healthy to us as individuals.

Similarly, it’s only 70 years since society has started having strategies to improve health (establishment of UN and WHO in 1946) – that was a world we envisaged people not just surviving but thriving in the world. In its consittution, the World Health Organisation defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”, and this was in a world where our concepts of social networks was quite different from today.

Wellness is a $3.4trillion industry (vitamins, gym, health apparatus etc), double the arms trade! We have a strategy to handle the joint impact of cars, tv and sugar. But we don’t have a strategy for our connectedness.

We all 168 hours in the week, one third we are sleeping, one third we are working, and one third we are “functioning”, or perhaps “dysfunctioning”. Julia argued that society is dysfunctional because information flows are dysfunctional, and our time management is dysfunctional.

We live cheek by jowl with tech as if it’s another species which is here to stay whatever we might choose to do ourselves, but we have to regain the balance in connectedness with our fellow humans. Isn’t intimacy with the few more important than connectedness with the many?

We are now very connected, but are we well connected and healthily connected? If we don’t find a way to handle this, we will fall out of the balloon and fail to thrive.

One interesting point Julia made was that the recent Ebola outbreak has the same network properties as the internet. It reminded me of a fascinating TED talk I watched earlier this year, which showed that often iterative designs by machines and humans lead to solutions which bear a resemblance to things we see in the natural world. I’m intrigued as to whether this is because as humans we subconciously create that which we can relate to from the natural world, or whether the our technological developments are immune to this, and the resmblance is purely down to the optimal designs which come from iteration and evolution. I’ve yet to really sit down and think about this though!

Who got to join us in the balloon?

I ended up voting for Mark’s proposition. It wasn’t that I didn’t rate the other speakers’ proposition, more that I felt his represented a real choice for us to make, whereas the other two feel more like inevitable for any society seeking to improve its lot. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pay heed to the ideas that were raised during the debate.

My question for Julia was whether she thought it was possible for us to take proactive steps to connect in a more healthy way, or whether we were more likley to suffer a major crisis in this sphere before we recognised how important it is to be connected in a healthy way. I also agree with Azeem that technology is a force for progress, so long as we develop and use it in a considered way, recognising that tehcnological progress is not a benign force.

I’d like to thank everyone at De Beauvoir Balloonists for a really interesting night — I’m really looking forward to the next debate in June.

PS. Since drafting this blog, I’ve seen a related discussion in the Harvard Business Review about what blockchain means for the sharing economy. A quote which particularly reminded me of Mark’s idea was:

The problem with this model is that, in most cases, the value produced by the crowd is not equally redistributed among all those who have contributed to the value production; all of the profits are captured by the large intermediaries who operate the platforms.