A few months ago I was sitting on a subway train in New York City, packed in amongst tired commuters making their way home from a long day at work, and I overheard something that made me stop in my tracks.
I was doing the typical New York thing — intensely observing the people around me while maintaining the facade that I was ignoring them all the while — when, from across the subway car, I observed the murmurings of two young men deep in a conversation.
Of all things that two twenty-somethings could be chatting about, these two caught my ear. They were in a heating discussion… and it was all about data.
Specifically, its widespread collection, and how “creepy” it was to learn what major tech companies were doing with their private information.
As the founder of a branding agency for blockchain startups and communications director for the Unification Foundation, my ears perked up. I spend my days deeply thinking about what the future of data management looks like, and I couldn’t help but listen in to this real-life case study about how data affects people.
I could tell immediately that these two weren’t techies. They were average Millennials, intermingling comments about women and parties with expressions of their looming sense of dread about data privacy.
Oh, how the world has changed.
Several days later, I found myself visiting my mother at her home in Colorado. Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional hearings were happening, and data was once again a hot topic of conversation, albeit in a very different context.
My innocent questions about how my mother uses Facebook revealed that she had many of the same questions as the aging Congresspeople — and they all centered around the use of data.
My mom, who is in early 60s, wanted to be careful about what data she generated and how it was transmitted. She felt she didn’t have the knowledge about what to pay attention to or how to control what happened to her information, and she was looking for clear answers.
Though the people involved in these situations couldn’t be more different, I couldn’t help but notice the correlation.
No matter who you are or where you live, data is a thing now.
Embrace it, fight it, or study it — whatever you do, just don’t ignore it, or you may be caught by surprise by the way the world is changing.
The emergence of data as a divisive issue
Never before in the history of humankind has the topic of data and its collection, management, usage, and sale been so forefront in the mind of everyday people.
We now live in an era where increasing numbers of everyday people not only know general concepts of information architecture, API’s, and third-party apps — many of them also care about how these infrastructure-level technologies are being used, and how they will continue to evolve in the coming decades.
This is a complete 180 from a decade or two ago, where, despite using cellphones and email, your run-of-the-mill soccer mom or hockey dad had zero knowledge of how data was stored and very little understanding of its relevance to their day-to-day lives.
It makes sense — until recently, the conversation about how we should be collecting, storing, interpreting, and sharing data has, until quite recently, been largely confined to computer science geeks, hiding within the walled campuses of Silicon Valley.
As a result, conversations about data and how it can be leveraged to engineer predefined outcomes have generally been carried out only by those already elbows deep in solving problems of tech infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the average person has historically had little awareness about the slight nuances between various approaches to data management.
And that was fine, when the data collected was relatively low level and represented only a small fraction of the goings-on of our lives.
But now data matters — a lot. Increasingly, we see it woven into the fabric of nearly everything, and its importance is only increasing.
You don’t have to be a techie to recognize that wars over data are quickly becoming the battleground of the future, and that the ripple effects of this debate will affect us all.
Which is why it’s no surprise that the people of the world are starting to take note. And the public’s increasing understanding of how and why data matters is setting the stage for one of the biggest showdowns of our era.
The political rivalries of the future will be based on data
From its first appearance in 2006, “data is the new oil” has become a rallying cry for those who are watching the new internet-based reality cause ripple effects across the planet.
The comparison between data and oil speaks volumes about the world we live in. Not only is data the commodity of choice in our new world order, but also, like oil, it’s also the resource most likely to spark the next wave of conflict.
Before, conflict on issues of data storage and information architecture most often took the shape of two colleagues disagreeing across cubicle walls, with a CEO calling the shots of who won and who lost.
Now, as the internet opens the floodgates for billions of people to potentially participate in just such a debate, we’re seeing the makings of massive, decentralized movements advocating for their own specific interpretations of what privacy, identity, and communication should look like in the 21st century — and there’s no CEO to settle the debate.
It would be foolish not to recognize that, as it stands, the average person only cares about data privacy to a certain degree. Most people who witnessed this spring’s negative press around Facebook spend no more than several seconds feeling indignant about the perceived violation, and then went back to their lives with little to no change in their actual actions.
But awareness compounds, and it’s highly likely that at some point in the near future, one’s stance on data will become a hot-button issue, just as entrenched as an opinion on, say, abortion, immigration, or the death penalty.
Which means that, like the increasing polarization we’re witnessing in the political realm, opinions on data are likely to become just as divisive as what we are accustomed to in political debates.
Cryptocurrency: The de-facto battleground for the future of governance
Enter the blockchain and cryptocurrency communities, which currently represent the bleeding edge of discussion about how data should be treated going forward.
Blockchain, a type of distributed-ledger technology that first emerged with Bitcoin and has since been adopted by scores of projects as the internal scaffolding of the decentralized web, is nothing short of a complete rethinking of data management.
With a distributed ledger, for the first time it has become possible to imagine a world in which we can continue to experience the benefits of widespread data collection — such as algorithms that truly understand our preferences, seamless user experience between web-based services, and hassle-free identity verification — while also enabling each person to maintain ultimate control over when, where, and how their data is used.
Up until now, much of the potential of blockchain and other distributed-ledger technologies has been buried amidst the larger controversy about cryptocurrency and what it represents.
The uninitiated are prone to dismiss cryptocurrencies as unstable get-rich-quick schemes, with little chance of taking down long-established structures of governance and finance. In doing so, they lose sight of the immense potential power of the underlying distributed ledger technology.
To the casual observer, it’s easy to fall into a false sense of a binary: There are those who have bought into a crypto future, and those who remain dubious.
But the reality is, when examining the cryptocurrency and blockchain movements, what seems like a monolithic block of anti-government, anti-bank sentiment is actually anything but.
To understand why this is the case, it’s important to remember that crypto is not an just alternate currency, designed to compete with the Japanese yen or the Russian ruble. Though the value of different tokens is currently being assessed in relation to national currencies, they actually represent something vastly different.
Cryptocurrencies allow us to answer a question that traditional fiat currencies don’t even ask. Namely: Which approach to data management do we support most?
At their core, cryptocurrency tokens represent lines of code tied to a particular perspective on how, in an ideal world, data should be managed and manipulated.
And the beauty of cryptocurrency is that, if you supports a certain approach, you have the opportunity to put your money where your mouth is. By purchasing a specific token, you are not only helping to fund the project, but also potentially ensuring its long-term success.
Which means that cryptocurrencies — and the blockchains they are built on — stand for something far larger than a number in an investment portfolio. When someone buys into a cryptocurrency, they’re actually voting on the type of data structure they think is best, and taking action to create that future.
We have found ourselves in a war of ideologies about the future of data governance — but the difference is that, unlike the political showdowns we’re used to, support can be measured in dollars invested and tokens purchased, rather than in the number of people willing to take to the streets.
At the end of the day, the biggest movement wins
Dialogue around data management is heating up, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t significant barriers for new distributed-ledger technologies who want to rise up and take the place of established behemoths.
Before we can figure out what will replace the much-maligned data collection that defines our current era, it will be necessary to tackle a huge challenge: Getting the jaded public — most of whom accepted long ago that they had very little right to their data — to understand that they have the opportunity to affect change, and what the stakes are if they choose not to participate.
For crypto enthusiasts and teams building distributed-ledger projects, this will involve drawing a straight line between investment in cryptocurrencies and the possibility for new models of data governance to actually succeed.
We know from the basics of human psychology that people don’t take action unless they care about the problem, and have a clear sense of what actions are necessary to create their desired solution.
This year’s influx of attention toward data privacy has proved that the former has already occurred, but it will be up to blockchain companies themselves to spell out the latter for the end consumers.
At the present moment, we find ourselves stuck in an awkward place: Many people know they want change, but don’t have a clear understanding of what tools are available to achieve it.
As a result, distributed-ledger projects have both a massive challenge and a massive opportunity ahead of them.
If they are able present their ideas in a way that taps into this wave of discontent, they can rally public support and position themselves as a legitimate solution to the problems that ail our current society.
But if they focus too heavily on the dense technical aspects of their project, or cater only to the interests of diehard investors rather than the public at large, they risk alienating many of the everyday people who might have otherwise joined them in their movement for change.
The success of blockchain depends on communication
In a war of ideas, nothing matters more than powerful articulation of one’s viewpoints. Without a clear understanding of why a particular viewpoint matters, it’s impossible to compel people to take the actions necessary to implement change.
If people can’t understand the value of an idea, what a project brings to the table, and how a proposed solution will play out in the actual lives of consumers, then it is dead on arrival.
Within the blockchain space, communication is literally the make-it-or-break-it differentiator that will cause some projects to thrive while others whither on the vine.
And if a technology can’t pick up steam right out of the gate, its chance of winning the long-term war of ideas is slim to none.
When it comes to pulling this off, though, there is considerable tension. It’s no secret that many of the techies creating the next wave of data systems struggle to effectively express their ideas, causing the benefits of their project to get lost amidst the geek speak.
Even for those founders who are gifted communicators, they typically find their heads swimming with such diverse elements of the project — from the big-picture vision to the small-detail technical components — that it can be challenging for them to nail down exactly what kind of messaging is most likely to spark a movement with their product.
Which is why the strongest distributed-ledger projects acknowledge the importance of getting their words right from the very start, and bring on high-level support to assist them with formulating their brand identities and overall communication strategies.
Because at the end of the day, if you can’t get people to use your technology, it not only means the outlook for your business is bleak. It also signifies that you’re not presenting a vision of the future that can excite the masses.
We’re facing a reality where each and every human being, through the power of the internet, gets to throw their support behind the projects that align with their visions for the future.
And even established tech giants like Facebook, increasingly humbled by the tarnish appearing on its King of the Internet crown, are coming to the stark realization that having the masses on your side is truly the only thing that matters in the long term.
Facebook may have struggled through their own battle this year, but the war is still on — and the playing field is wider than it has ever been before.
Only time will tell which technologies will thrive over the long arc of history. But if there’s one thing that’s a sure bet, it’s that whichever option manages to gain the diehard support of the most people will be the ones that thrive.
For those who hold opposing views on how data should be managed going forward, it’s time to step up and start building a movement of support amongst the public at large.
Because without a movement of millions serving as one’s mouthpiece, there’s no chance of winning the war of ideas over the long term.
And that movement hinges on people going beyond just caring about data. It requires that they get inspired about specific new approaches to data management and throw their support behind the cryptocurrencies and distributed-ledger technology that best matches their worldview.
The question is, which tech will master the communication game and win over the masses? Only time will tell.
Erica Blair is founder of Blockchain Branding and Communications Director at Unification Foundation. Erica combines her extensive expertise as a Branding Consultant with a passion for sparking a decentralized blockchain-based revolution.
Erica speaks extensively about branding and storytelling for blockchain projects. Click here to watch her most recent public talks and inquire about booking for your event.
- Erica Blair, Public Speaker: ericablair.io
- Blockchain Branding: blockchainbranding.io
- Unification Foundation: unification.com